Emotional scenes as Carlisle Utd fans salute Tony Hopper - "one of our own"
There was a wipe of the eye, one last wave, and then it was over; the most emotional and meaningful half-time interval Brunton Park has seen.
Football is a game of small rituals. Here, a man walking a few yards onto the pitch happened to be significant beyond words.
Thousands of people had come not only for the game, but to tell Tony Hopper how much he is loved. That message was delivered with such warmth that it moved the man to tears.
As fans in the Main Stand sang, ", he's one of our own," the former midfielder turned to all sides of the ground and returned their applause.
His face showed just how touched he was by the reception. The same went for many of those giving it. There were tears in the Paddock, the Pioneer Stand, the Warwick Road End; everywhere else, in fact.
This was the real story at Carlisle's ground on Saturday. Not what happened either side of Hopper's appearance, as the Blues and Portsmouth went toe-to-toe in the rain, the visiting team prevailing 3-0.
Hopper, whose battle with motor neurone disease has touched many in Cumbria and beyond, was the person who mattered. His family and close friends who accompanied him, the same.
This was their day; a day they will now always have. These are people for whom the making of memories has suddenly acquired deep and poignant meaning. One hopes that Saturday, February 25, 2017 is a memory they are able to treasure.
Hopper was United's guest of honour, his picture adorning the programme cover, his three sons mascots for the day. Those lively boys were a joy to watch, sprinting across the pitch before most of the crowd had arrived, later kicking the ball around and chasing one another as Keith Curle's players warmed up.
At that point their 40-year-old dad was chatting to old faces in the stand, in good spirits. At one stage he sat down and spoke to a man who had just struggled his way up the steps to reach his wooden seat. Another MND sufferer, it transpired.
Later, 2.50pm, United and Portsmouth were led out by Daniel Hopper, nine, with seven-year-old Adam not far behind. Jack, four, walked onto the pitch and then swiftly scurried back off it, towards his mum.
It was about an hour later when Tony made his own, steady entrance, emerging from a tunnel familiar to him over a 157-game Blues career. Many supporters had delayed their normal half-time activities to greet their fellow Cumbrian.
As he came out, "There's only one Tony Hopper" was chorused by a group of fans in the Main Stand. Adrian Bell, on the microphone, encouraged all those moved by his story to give generously to the fundraising appeals launched in his name.
One such fund, that will help the Hoppers make more special memories for their boys, passed the £30,000 mark on Saturday morning. Another, for the Motor Neurone Disease Association, will receive a cut of United's programme proceeds; it is also the subject of the's Fighting Back for Tony campaign.
In the last two weeks the man himself has spoken publicly about his condition with a bravery that is difficult to comprehend. That has taken his story into many parts of this community, and his short stroll here enabled some of that community to show that it cared; not just with money, but with admiration, affection, sympathy, respect.
Tony was accompanied by Daniel - who had HOPPER 9 on his shirt - as the fans clapped and sang. This decent and unassuming man, diagnosed with the cruellest of illnesses, then reached into the Golden Gamble pot and made someone's lucky day.
Then he left again, back to his family, back to his battle, love following every step.
To support the Hoppers' Fightback Fund for the MND Association, visit https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Tony-Hopper
If you are organising any fundraising events to support Tony, please let us know at email@example.com
The Blues boss was introduced to the former midfielder in the build-up to the Portsmouth match.