Sky Sports' Johnny Phillips: Former stars aid battle to kick cancer into touch

Last Friday some of the great Premier League names of years gone by gathered at St George’s Park for a special charity football tournament.

Copa Del CL is the brainchild of the blood cancer charity Cure Leukaemia. The day involves a huge 20-team five-a-side competition staged on the pitches of the indoor dome at the England training centre.

Teams are supplemented by the addition of a former playing star and participants get to use the same dressing rooms as the England team, enjoy lunch and dinner at the facilities and even stay over at the adjoining Hilton hotel where Gareth Southgate’s side base themselves during international weeks.

This year, Matt Le Tissier, Kevin Phillips, Chris Sutton, Lee Hendrie, Danny Mills, Ian Harte, Chris Brunt, Matt Elliott, Frank Sinclair and Michael Johnson donned their boots and rolled back the years on the pitch with some impressive performances. Patron of the charity, Geoff Thomas, was also in attendance to watch the matches unfold.

There was a particular poignancy to the 2021 event, following on just a couple of days after news broke of David Brooks’s Hodgkin lymphoma diagnosis.

The 24-year old Bournemouth midfielder has a long and arduous battle ahead.

So many footballers have been affected by blood cancer. In our region Wolves’s Carl Ikeme and Aston Villa’s Stiliyan Petrov survived acute leukaemia but the illness robbed them of the latter part of their careers.

Cure Leukaemia suffered a £2million shortfall in funding as a result of the pandemic, but is continuing with its breakthrough work against blood cancer.

The charity is funding research nurses & clinical roles at 12 blood cancer centres across the UK. These roles form the Trials Acceleration Programme (TAP) network giving patients, access to pioneering and potentially life-saving treatments through clinical trials.

Some of the UK’s biggest companies such as KPMG, Deutsche Bank, Molson Coors, FORM Financial, OWB Creative, Redss, Binding Site, Booths and LDC generously supported the St George’s Park event.

“It’s a fantastic cause, I played in this event previously and it’s always a brilliant day for a charity that has been really important for football,” said Kevin Phillips. “It’s heart-breaking to hear about David Brooks but I’m sure he will get lots of support from the football community.”

“I know Stiliyan and have seen what he has come through,” said former Villa and England midfielder Lee Hendrie. “It’s vital that we continue to raise awareness and funds to fight these diseases.”

Lee Hendrie.

In 2014, Lizzie Dean, who lives in Daventry and works as an engineer, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia and it was soon determined that she would require a stem cell transplant. The initial procedure was successful but, in the summer of 2016, Lizzie relapsed and her prospects were very bleak.

Thankfully, Lizzie was placed on a world first clinical trial, called VIOLA, at Birmingham’s Centre for Clinical Haematology at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. This trial was part funded by Cure Leukaemia and the results have been remarkable. Lizzie’s leukaemia is in remission, her chemotherapy has been stopped and she is almost back to living a normal life.

“Lizzie got lucky because she lived in Birmingham, but what we want to do now is fund research nurses across the UK to allow those clinical trials to happen,” said Cure Leukaemia CEO James McLaughlin.

“Every time we come to this event Lizzie and her family are here supporting us.

“What is really exciting for everyone involved with Cure Leukaemia, despite difficult the last 18 months, is that we feel we are on the cusp of something really remarkable in terms of treating blood cancer.

“David Brooks has a big fight on his hands but what he can take from this are the stories of Geoff Thomas, Stiliyan Petrov and Carl Ikeme in the last few years. They’ve fought blood cancer in that positive way that footballers fight everything.”

As always, the tournament was keenly contested with Frame Breakers proving worthy winners, playing some stunning stuff across almost five hours of tournament football.

The celebrations continued long into the night, with Dean Saunders providing an alternative view of the Aston Villa dressing room in the 1990s during an entertaining after-dinner speech, and there are hopes that Copa Del CL will continue to grow in coming years, providing much-needed funding for a hugely important charity.

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