Former teammates of Mel Rees yesterday paid tribute to the former Sheffield United goalkeeper, on the 21st anniversary of his tragic death from cancer.
Rees, who died in 1993 at the age of just 26, spent only a short time at Bramall Lane - but he left behind a legacy of fond memories amongst fans and one-time teammates alike.
Born in Cardiff, Rees made a £25,000 switch to United from West Brom in 1992, and made his debut in a 2-0 top-flight win over Liverpool.
He made eight further appearances for United that season, as they finished 9th in the table and secured a place in the new Premier League.
“We signed Mel because of a goalkeeping crisis, and nobody really knew much about him,” former teammate Kevin Gage, who played more than 100 times for United, said.
“We threw him straight into the team against Liverpool, and he was phenomenal. I don’t think he’d even met any of us beforehand!
“But we couldn’t believe how good he was - and we wondered what he was doing with us if he was this good!”
But in the summer of 1992, just as boss Dave Bassett was making preparations for United’s first Premier League campaign, Rees was diagnosed with cancer of the bowel.
The Welshman fought the disease bravely, and did make one last appearance on the pitch for United when he led out Bassett’s men at Wembley for their FA Cup semi-final against city rivals Wednesday in 1993.
He enjoyed a standing ovation from both sets of supporters on a lap of honour - but, tragically, passed away less than two months later.
“Wembley was fantastic for him”, Gage added.
“Both sets of supporters - around 80,000 people - stood and applauded him.
“Football paled in significance while he walked round, and it was very brave.
Quite a few staff were affected by it - and, in hindsight, I don’t think it was fantastic preparation for such a big game. But he deserved his moment in the limelight.”
Another who had observed Rees at close quarters was fellow goalkeeper Alan Kelly, who played that day at Wembley.
“When I signed, I thought it was going to be as cover for Mel and Simon Tracey,” Blades legend Kelly said.
“I didn’t know at the time that Mel was ill. I met him on our return from a pre-season tour; he held out his hand and said ‘don’t worry, it’s not contagious!’
“He was an amazing man, who was sadly taken from us too soon. I will never forget walking off the Wembley pitch after that semi- final defeat to Wednesday, together with Mel.
“That was the only moment in my life which made me realise there were more important things in life than football.”
Mel’s memory lives on in the form of an annual tournament in his honour, which raises money for St Luke’s Hospice.
“Watching Mel get so ill was heartbreaking,” Gage added.
“But he didn’t mope around the place - he was a lively character, as most goalkeepers are - and he made some good friends at Bramall Lane.
“He is still sadly missed.”