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Sunday, June 16, 2024

The death of an academy player in a car crash that has brought a town to its knees

The uplifting and enduring appeal of the FA Youth Cup comes from the possibilities it offers each year to hundreds of aspiring youngsters. It is a competition that represents opportunity. It is football’s circle of life starting over.

Only not this week. Not for Grimsby Town.

The FA Youth Cup instead captured loss and grief, the sadness and tragedy of a life cut short at the age of 16.

Cameron Walsh was part of a Grimsby side that had progressed to this season’s fourth round with victories over their counterparts from Shrewsbury Town, South Shields and Nottingham Forest but, before getting the chance to face visitors Millwall for a place in the last 16, the teenage defender was killed in a car crash, along with his 40-year-old father, Dave.

Wednesday night’s tie under the Blundell Park floodlights was the first time Grimsby Under-18s had played since Walsh’s death on January 6. Nobody in the squad wore his shirt, their No 3, and nor will they for the rest of this season. It instead lay on the club’s memorial bench next to the Findus Stand, surrounded by flowers and messages of condolence.

This is a club still hurting.

Walsh was hugely popular with staff and team-mates, who took it upon themselves to have T-shirts printed carrying his image for them to wear during the warm-ups. Some had climbed Grimsby’s youth ranks with Walsh for the previous five years, others had been classmates at Waltham Toll Bar Academy in the port town on England’s north east coast, who have remembered him as a “friendly, passionate and determined young man.”

That these teenage footballers were all able to return to action, with Walsh’s family watching on, was a triumph amid the continued mourning. Their eventual 4-1 defeat scarcely mattered.

“The club and the staff are immensely proud of the lads for what they’ve gone through,” says the under-18s’ long-serving coach Neil Woods. “They’ve dealt with it incredibly well. They’re still suffering and it’s not going to go away for a long time. It changes the dynamic of the group, changes the dynamic of the day-to-day. He’s missed a great deal.”

The deaths of Dave and Cameron Walsh brought Grimsby — the town, not only its football club — to its knees. Both were widely known in the local football community, with Dave having been a player for Cleethorpes Town, the grassroots club where he also coached a young Cameron.

Football was everything to them both, as was Cameron’s pursuit of a professional career in the game.

“Cameron was a super lad,” Woods says. “He loved the team ethos and being part of a squad. He loved celebrating with his team-mates and he was just so very low maintenance.

Grimsby wore T-shirts with Cameron’s photo on for the warm-up on Wednesday (photo courtesy of Grimsby Town)

“He’d do what you asked of him and he was a very talented footballer. He had pace, he had a good football brain and I’m sure he would’ve had a bright future in front of him.

“But it wasn’t just Cameron, it was Dave as well.

“Dave was a very popular local footballer, and there wasn’t a game that Cameron played that Dave wasn’t there watching. He was supportive in every way. He just loved seeing his son play football.”

The crash site on Tetney Lock Road, in a rural part of the county of Lincolnshire, is only seven miles from Blundell Park. It was here where friends of the father and son gathered in the days that followed, laying flowers on the grass verge. A nearby telegraph pole still has a Grimsby Town shirt attached.

An inquest into their deaths, opened last week, heard the Mercedes 300 car Dave and Cameron were travelling in came off the road and entered an adjacent waterway. Neither could be saved and they were pronounced dead at the scene.

Debbie Cook, Grimsby’s chief executive, says she felt “disbelief, sorrow and heartache” when learning of the news. “Those feelings continue to occupy many of us and will do so for a very long time,” she says.

The last three weeks have primarily been an attempt to keep a club together.

As quickly as January 7, the morning after the crash, a meeting was held at the club’s training ground between Cook and senior staff to make plans they could never have foreseen before that Sunday. Support has been offered to all members of the club’s academy, as well as their parents. Grimsby have also kept the Walsh family informed of the tributes that have followed.

“The reaction of most people at the club will stay with me forever,” Cook says. “Everyone looked out for one another. Everyone checked in with others.

“On the Tuesday (after the crash), I broke down in tears after doing a piece to camera with the BBC and I think word soon got around the training ground that I was struggling that day. One player gave me a bigger hug than usual, one player instead of simply waving to me as he left the training ground, stopped his car, wound down his window and shouted to ask if I was OK. He didn’t need to do that, as his usual wave would have been sufficient, but that simple act of kindness and empathy meant so much to me.”

The first team’s League Two game against Notts County the following Saturday, an extraordinary game that finished as a 5-5 draw, became a tribute to Cameron and his father. The 16-year-old’s image was carried on the front of the programme and a minute of applause was held before kick-off. As with this week’s Youth Cup tie, the Walsh family were in attendance.

A bucket collection on the turnstiles raised close to £900 and the money was added to a GoFundMe fundraiser that now stands at over £57,000 ahead of Friday’s funerals.

Cleethorpes Town have donated £500 and there are plans for a lasting tribute at their ground. Cameron had been a mascot for the non-League club in their greatest moment — leading them out for the 2016-17 FA Vase final against South Shields at Wembley.

The deaths have had a numbing impact on the town.

A local BBC report two days after the accident found a group of Cameron’s friends at the crash site, with one saying it was the “worst day of his life”. Another youngster said that Dave “saw us all as his own kids.”

The pre-match minute’s silence against Millwall (photo courtesy of Grimsby Town)

Cameron only left school six months ago to begin his apprenticeship with Grimsby. He played under-18s football last season and became a regular part of Woods’ defence in this one.

The FA Youth Cup third-round tie against Nottingham Forest on December 5, with Grimsby upsetting their Premier League visitors with a 1-0 win after extra time, saw Walsh play all 120 minutes. That was his biggest night in football but the visit of Millwall promised to be bigger still.

Whatever they go on to do in the game, it is unlikely the team-mates Walsh left behind will ever face an occasion as emotionally charged as the one they came through on Wednesday.

Woods spoke before and after the defeat of his immense pride in a group of 16-to-18-year-olds finding the resilience to play a match so soon after losing a friend in such circumstances. The tie had initially been scheduled for five days earlier, only for a frozen pitch to bring a postponement.

“It was important that they got back doing what they do,” Woods says. “Dave and Cameron would’ve wanted that to happen, so this was step one. I thought they had a right go and we, as a football club, are so proud of them finding the strength to get out there and play again.

“There’s some lads who have been at school with Cameron all the way through. They weren’t just team-mates, they were friends before they came into football. Wearing the shirts, the minute’s applause, it will have brought it all back to them. For them to get through 90 minutes will be a big step in helping them.

“It’s been extremely difficult. You’ve got qualifications and you go on courses (as a coach) but no one can prepare you for anything like this. But whatever my players and staff are feeling, it’s nothing to what the family are feeling. We know that.”

Wednesday night was understandably sombre.

Silence had fallen on Blundell Park long before a short tribute was read out by the public-address announcer, which was followed by another minute’s applause. A picture of Dave and Cameron was shown on the stadium’s big screen.

“This was always going to be about Cameron,” Woods says. “The lads asked if they could do something and it was them who got the T-shirts made to warm up in. You can see by the support we got how much it meant to everyone.”

Grimbsy put in a spirited performance, having the better of a goalless first half. Only when Championship side Millwall’s youngsters took the lead, just before the hour, did the home team subside. By the end, Woods’ young group looked emotionally spent. The trauma had clearly taken its toll.

“It was very emotional,” Woods says. “Some of those lads are 16. It’s difficult to deal with when you’re older. To deal with it at their age is incredibly hard.

“It wasn’t about (the result), it’s the occasion and remembering their friend.”

This week underlines they will not forget.

(Top photos: Philip Buckingham/The Athletic; Grimsby Town)

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