Billy Sharp exclusive: Baby Luey was a fighter but when he began to cry, we said: 'You have to let go now'
22:00 GMT, 13 July 2012
Match of the day has a special significance for Billy Sharp. The fact he and his Southampton team-mates will be part of the Premier League highlights programme this season is a source of immense pride, but with that joy comes waves of the deepest, most unimaginable sadness: the memory of the son who is not here to watch his dad on a Saturday night.
Luey Jacob Sharp was born on Thursday October 27 last year and passed away just two days later. Billy, 26, and his girlfriend Jade, 25, were with their son when he died, just after Luey had battled for his life through his one and only episode of Match of the Day.
‘He kept going blue and then…’ says Billy, taking a huge, rasping gasp of air. ‘I kept saying to my dad, “This is it. He’s not going to come through this time”.’ Jade takes up the story: ‘You kept saying, “Can you make it through Match of the Day” And he did. He was a real little fighter. You could tell he really didn’t want to go.
Feeling Blue: Billy Sharp and girlfriend Jade sit at their home in Southampton wearing blue bands for the Luey Jacob Sharp Foundation, as well as the t-shirt being worn by the striker
‘He never really cried but towards the
end he started to cry and his lungs had failed so he was leaking fluid,
brown fluid. We could tell then that he was in pain. We kept saying to
him, “You have to let go now”.’
‘You knew he was exhausted by the way
he took his last breath,’ says Billy. ‘It was like a grown-up’s last
breath, like he was fed up. For me it was almost a relief because I knew
he was hurting.’
Their eyes moisten but, somehow, the
tears do not fall. And the words — these incredibly difficult words, the
words no parent ever wants to speak — keep coming: quietly,
respectfully and eloquently. Sitting in the living room of their new
home in Southampton, the couple discuss how they dealt with being
confronted by a new word, gastroschisis, a defect of the abdominal wall
which causes the bowel to grow outside the baby’s body.
They talk about how and why Billy played and scored for his then-club Doncaster Rovers just three days after Luey died.
Words seem to help, you see. Talking,
saying Luey’s name — a name spelt to avoid the common mispronunciation
of Billy’s middle name,Louis — helps.
Jade said: ‘After we moved to
Southampton, as the time went on, some of the girls, the ones who were
pregnant or had kids, said they found it hard to come and talk to me
because of what we’ve gone through. They didn’t really know what to say.
‘I feel bad for people because we don’t mind talking about it. It makes me feel better to talk about it.
‘But people don’t really know what to
say. When we went on holiday people asked, “Oh, have you got kids” And
then it’s us who don’t really know what to say.’
Tribute: Sharp wore a T-shirt dedicating his goal against Middlesbrough to Luey
‘You don’t want to tell people but then you don’t not want to tell people,’ says Billy. ‘I say, “Yes, but he passed away”.’
It is impossible not to feel moved by
this young couple’s story; by the way they were thrown, unprepared, into
a fight to ease the suffering of their first-born’s short life and how,
in their very different ways, they are coping with such a devastating
Nine months later it is still an
ongoing process: every day brings its new challenges. This October, the
anniversary of Luey’s birth and death, will bring even more.
Billy said: ‘You see little boys who
are the same age and you think, “Luey would have done that”. But you
just want to know: would he have done that What would he have been
‘We never got to know, did we…’ says Jade. ‘Every minute of every day, you wonder.’
‘Moments,’ Billy calls them. He
shudders slightly at some memories and smiles warmly at others. They
are, after all, times when Luey still feels a part of his parents’
lives. The day Southampton got promoted, thanks to a 4-0 home win over
Coventry City, was one of those ‘moments’.
‘The lads took their kids on to the
pitch,’ says Sharp. ‘That was the one bit where I thought, “He could
have been here now, in his kit”.’ Until Luey was born, Sharp says he
played every game for his mum and dad. They have never missed a match,
since he started playing in Sheffield at the age of six. But now he
plays for Luey, in a pair of boots with ‘LJS’ on the heels.
Football provided Sharp with an
outlet, a way of getting straight back into his old routine. Luey died
on Saturday night and Sharp rang his boss at Doncaster, Dean Saunders,
on Sunday morning and said: ‘Look, I’m ready to come back in and I’m
ready to play on Tuesday.’
Sharp smiles. ‘The gaffer was
brilliant,’ he says. ‘He said, “Right. That’s the best news I’ve had
since I’ve been at the club. I’ll see you Tuesday”.’
Big impact: after his switch from Doncaster, Sharp helped Southampton over the line in the promotion chase
Doncaster played Middlesbrough that
night. Sharp was captain, the players wore black armbands and there was a
minute’s applause in Luey’s memory. Jade was there, too.
Sharp says: ‘We had a room at Martin
House hospice in Leeds where Luey was, a really cold room, where we
could go and see him. I kept going in and out and seeing him and the
more I thought about what I was doing, the more it felt right. I just
wanted to do this one thing for him.
‘Tuesday was hard because it was the
first time I’d left him, but then I knew that, because he was in Martin
House, it was just like they were babysitting him and I was coming back
after football to see him.’ Sharp puffs out his cheeks, pauses for a
few seconds, and then looks up and carries on, somehow.
He scored that evening as Doncaster
lost 3-1, a stunning volleyed effort after 14 minutes that Boro boss
Tony Mowbray called a ‘goal from heaven’. Sharp celebrated by revealing a
T-shirt saying: ‘That’s for you son.’
It had been the kit man’s idea. He
slipped the T-shirt under Sharp’s kit so none of his team-mates, only
Jade, knew about it. Seeing it lying there was the one moment Sharp
thought, ‘Can I do this’ But he did.
‘I just knew I was going to score,’ he
says. ‘The result wasn’t the right one but I’ve never scored a goal
like I did and I don’t think I ever will do. But it was just meant to
‘After I scored the goal I just wanted
to go home. From a selfish point of view, I’d done what I wanted to do.
It got me back doing what I love and out of being in a horrible mood.’
Sharp keeps saying it was a ‘selfish’
way of dealing with his loss, but it doesn’t feel like that at all. It
was just his way of coping. He had the day off on Wednesday, the day of
Luey’s funeral, and then Saunders put training back on Thursday so Sharp
could be there when Luey was cremated.
In memory: In the Premier League next season, Sharp will continue to wear his son's initials on his boots
‘We had to cremate him on the
Thursday,’ says Jade. ‘And you went training after. And that was you,
back in full-time football.’ In a 3-2 win at Ipswich Town that Saturday,
Sharp scored again.
Everyone at Portman Road started
clapping, providing another ‘unbelievable moment’ for the striker. A
Barnsley fan was accused of vile abuse in January, but Sharp prefers to
remember the support he gleaned from the game, both at Doncaster and
then when he moved to the south coast in January.
He ‘needed a change’ and Southampton came in just at the right time — professionally and, you feel, personally as well.
‘Football does get a bad side
sometimes but it brings out the good in a lot of things as well,’ Billy
says. ‘Dean Saunders could have said, “No, listen, football’s just a
game”. But he got me back into my everyday life. I tried to use it
positively; even though I was hurting inside.’
Jade, however, could not immerse
herself in the everyday workings of a football team. She was physically
weak after giving birth and having an epidural and was on maternity
leave from her job in recruitment.
She says everything was ‘just a blur’,
adding: ‘I think I slept for about two weeks.’ But Jade has little time
for ‘sitting around wallowing and feeling sorry for yourself’.
Better together: Billy and Jade have both needed the support of the other to get through the pain
She has thrown her energy into the
Luey Jacob Sharp Foundation, a charity the couple have set up to raise
awareness of and fund research into gastroschisis. Very little is known
about the condition, which is why, when it was flagged up on Jade’s
12-week scan, she was sent home with a ‘leaflet with three paragraphs on
it’ and advised babies with gastroschisis have a 95 per cent survival
This is one of the most troubling
parts of Billy and Jade’s story. They were completely unprepared for
what was going to happen when their son was born six weeks early,
weighing just 4lb 1oz.
‘We knew he wasn’t going to be well when he was born but we just thought he would be unwell for three months,’ says Billy.
‘He might have to have an operation
and then he was going to be fine. But…’ He trails off. When Luey was
born his bowel, which had grown outside his body, was ‘completely
black’. He was too underdeveloped to have a transplant and the doctors
knew as soon as Jade gave birth that Luey would only be alive for a
matter of hours.
‘It was horrific the first night,’
says Jade. ‘We had been awake for 36 hours but we didn’t want to leave
Luey in intensive care. We managed to take him to the hospice in a Moses
basket with a heart monitor. If he stopped breathing for longer than
three seconds it beeped to wake us up. The worry was if we fell asleep
and he died when we were asleep that would have just been horrific.’
Billy looks up, proudly. ‘They said he wouldn’t make a few hours but…’ ‘…He did, didn’t he’ says Jade.
It is quiet for a few seconds. They are both smiling, sharing another important ‘moment’.
For more about the Luey Jacob Sharp Foundation or gastroschisis visit: ljsfoundation.org.uk/ You can also follow the LJS Foundation on Twitter: @foundationljs