Livescore Sunday, April 21
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On the pitch at Valley Parade, Bradford, two former footballers embrace. Their paths crossed only fleetingly as players — for just one minute in 2010, when one career was winding to a close and the other was just beginning — but there is an unbreakable bond between them now.

Stephen Darby is in a wheelchair. The former Liverpool youngster was about to turn 30, having left Bradford City for Bolton Wanderers when he received the devastating diagnosis that ended his football career and turned his life upside-down.

He was told, bluntly, that Motor Neurone Disease (MND) would cause the cells and nerves in his brain and spinal cord to degenerate, leading to severe deterioration and loss of function. With no known cure, he was told his life expectancy from that point in 2018 was two to five years.

Five years have passed since that diagnosis. Now 35, he is fighting harder than ever — fighting to defy what he calls a “brutal” disease and fighting to raise funds, raise awareness and spread hope among the MND community.

By comparison, Marcus Stewart’s battle is only beginning. A prolific goalscorer at Bristol Rovers, Huddersfield Town, Ipswich Town (where he scored 19 Premier League goals in 2000-01, finishing runner-up to Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink for the Golden Boot award) and Sunderland, he is two years into his journey with MND. He can still walk and talk as easily as he did before, but the symptoms are becoming more pronounced: his left hand is now “pretty much unusable”, his right going the same way.

Darby was one of the first people Stewart turned to after his diagnosis. “Purely because of the football connection,” Stewart, 51, says. “I knew almost nothing about MND before I was diagnosed. I had heard of it, but I didn’t know it was terminal. I wanted to talk to Stephen to get his insight and to see what I could do to help.”

Stewart immediately pledged his support to the Darby Rimmer MND Foundation, which Darby established after his diagnosis. That partnership has brought them to Bradford for the start of “March of the Day”, a three-day charity walk that will take us on a 178-mile route from Valley Parade to Anfield, visiting another 17 football grounds across West Yorkshire and the north-west.

The pair of them are staggered by the turnout. Certain friends and former team-mates had promised to get on board, but they weren’t expecting to see so many familiar — and unfamiliar — faces. “I’m very pleasantly surprised,” Stewart says. “I was feeling a bit subdued coming here this morning, but now I’m excited.”

Those joining the first stages of the walk include the former Leeds Rhinos, England and Great Britain rugby league player Rob Burrow, whose courageous fight with MND has inspired such great support from within his sport, most notably via the extraordinary fund-raising efforts of his former team-mate Kevin Sinfield.

“What the rugby league community has done is amazing,” Stewart says. “The (support of the) football community is simmering at the moment, I would say. Hopefully, this will be the start of something.”

“Everyone absolutely loves Stephen,” says Darby’s former Bradford and Bolton team-mate Filipe Morais on the road to Leeds. “As a team-mate and a captain, he was second to none. He’s the kindest person you could ever meet — this is an opportunity for us to support him.”

There is a huge number of ex-Bradford players here for the first stages of the walk, including Stuart McCall and several of the team that beat Arsenal and Aston Villa en route to the League Cup final in 2013. But Morais and Nathan Clarke are going the extra mile (and then some) as part of the core team of walkers who will, in shifts, cover the entire distance to Liverpool. “We would walk to the end of the world for him,” says Morais.

Two of Stewart’s former team-mates have joined the core team too: Martin Paul and Jeff Whitley, who played alongside him at Bristol Rovers and Sunderland respectively. Paul describes Stewart as a kind, humble guy who has barely changed since they were at Rovers more than three decades ago. Whitley works for the Professional Footballers Association these days, but he is here, above all, to support a friend.

Another four ex-players are among the core team: the former Everton, Oldham Athletic, Wigan Athletic and Tranmere Rovers forward Stuart Barlow, who lost his mother to MND three years ago; the former Liverpool and England goalkeeper Chris Kirkland; the former Bolton Wanderers and Scotland forward John McGinlay; and the former Wigan, Tranmere and Wales forward Simon Haworth, who says he was moved to get involved after watching the recent BBC documentary about Burrow.

Then there are the family members: Stewart’s wife Louise and Darby’s brother Kevin. Darby’s wife Steph Houghton is unable to join the core team due to Manchester City commitments, but she will join us for various stages and her father Len is here for the duration.

And then there are around a dozen others who, as with Barlow, are here because of their personal connections to MND and their determination to do whatever they can to try to support the cause: Shell Elliott, a primary schoolteacher, lost her grandfather to MND; David Cutts is here to support a close friend who lost his daughter, Gemma Middleton, to the disease; Martyn Clarke’s remarkable fundraising exploits have been inspired by Burrow and Sinfield.

Lee Hamilton lost his father Brian to the disease in December, 10 months after his diagnosis. “My dad was a very fit man who used to take part in Ironman challenges,” Lee says. “Early last year, he was out on his bike with a group of friends, he lost his voice and it never came back. He thought it was a stroke, but he went for tests and he was diagnosed with MND. And within 10 months he went from being a very fit man to… what this disease does to you.

“It’s hard being here. It’s hard to think what Stephen and Marcus and Rob Burrow and their families are going through. But at the same time, it’s inspiring. My dad would absolutely love to have seen it. He used to take me to watch Huddersfield and to see some of the players that were there at the start this morning: Ken Monkou, Jon Dyson, Wayne Allison, Chris Lucketti and, of course, Marcus.”

Stewart is equally moved to see so many former Huddersfield players on the walk. “He didn’t know they were all coming,” his wife Louise says. “He turned to me quietly and he said, ‘Lou, I can’t believe it. They’re all here.’”

Some of them walk the 22 miles from Bradford via Elland Road to Huddersfield’s John Smith’s Stadium. But this is where Stewart joins the walk, having challenged himself to trek from Huddersfield across the moors to Oldham. It will be a challenge, but he will have some stellar company along the way.

Paul Scholes drifts in undetected, as he used to with those perfectly timed runs into the penalty area back in his prime for Manchester United and England.

“Wasn’t Scholesy meant to be joining us for Saddleworth Moor?” someone asks — only to be told he is among us, hood up, head down, powering on through the rain.

Scholes has never wanted to be the public face of anything. He did not trumpet his participation on Instagram, where he prefers to showcase his children’s talents rather than his own. He is not here to be recognised. He is here to walk alongside Stewart — something which he has done in one way or another from the moment he received his diagnosis.

It is not immediately obvious how the pair know each other, but Stewart lived in the Saddleworth area when he played for Huddersfield in the late 1990s and still has family and a house here. “We just met locally a few years ago and we get on well,” Scholes says. “He’s a really good lad, Marcus.”

It is easy to imagine them getting on: uncomplicated, unpretentious guys who just wanted to play football and then go back home to their families. Living here, on the moors, would suit them. It’s a beautiful spot — away from the bustle of the cities, away from the glitz of the villages in Cheshire’s “golden triangle”.

But, by the time Scholes arrives, it is cold, dark, wet and windy. It is not what he or Stewart would have wished for when they signed up for this, but they carry on regardless. “I’m happy to class him as a friend,” Stewart says of Scholes. “He’s supported me, he’s sponsored me, he’s really stepped up and I can’t thank him enough.”

Oldham Athletic have pulled out all the stops. This is a club that lost its Football League status in 2022 after years of financial struggle and chaotic management, but Boundary Park is a happier place two years on. The warmth of the welcome is second to none; even Chaddy the Owl is out to greet us.

This is where Scholes gets off, but he promises to rejoin us at Old Trafford in the morning. That sounds a long way off at 10pm. Some of the group have decided it is pointless even trying to sleep between shifts. Some of us are determined to try, but it is easier said than done.

The hours that follow are a blur: getting off the bus to walk a few miles, then back on again, then off again: traipsing the streets of Manchester in the rain, from Boundary Park to Broadhurst Park (FC United of Manchester) to the Etihad Stadium (Manchester City) to Moss Lane (Altrincham).

Three young lads from Liverpool join us at Altrincham at 4am as we quietly set off for Old Trafford. Only gradually does it become clear that these are two sons and one nephew of Mark Maddox, who was one of Altrincham’s greatest players. He died in August last year at the age of 50, having lived with MND for 13 years.

“We wanted to do this in Mark’s memory and his honour,” his nephew Connor Smith says. “He was a legend at Altrincham and he was a legend for the way he dealt with having MND. He ran the London Marathon with MND two years after his diagnosis. He would love to have been involved with this.”

Scholes is waiting for us at Old Trafford, as he promised. So is his former team-mate Nicky Butt, who joins us on the walk to Salford City, the club in which they each own a 10 per cent stake along with former Manchester United team-mates Gary Neville, Phil Neville, David Beckham and Ryan Giggs.

Butt talks about how, as a professional athlete, “you feel like you’re bulletproof, like nothing is going to touch you and you’re always going to be riding on the crest of a wave”. But Darby’s and Stewart’s experiences have reminded him how precarious health can be, so he is keen to help out in any way he can.

The next leg, walking towards Bolton Wanderers, offers a chance to catch up with McGinlay, the club’s goalscoring hero of the mid-1990s. He was working at Bolton as an ambassador when Darby arrived from Bradford in 2017 — and he recalls wondering why “this guy who was known for being to able to run up and down forever” looked off the pace, out of breath, struggling to stay on for 90 minutes.

From the first symptoms, which began at Bradford, it took 18 months and countless tests and medical appointments before Darby was diagnosed with MND. McGinlay says everyone at Bolton was devastated by the news. Even without having made anything like the same impression on the pitch as he did at Bradford, Darby was loved by all at Bolton. “A nicer lad you couldn’t wish to meet,” McGinlay says.

Hence his willingness to help out in whatever way he can — partly as a representative of Bolton but above all as a friend.

When March of the Day began on Friday morning, Matt Holland was on the final day of a skiing holiday with his family. It is now Saturday afternoon and the former Ipswich, Charlton Athletic and Republic of Ireland midfielder is arriving at the Toughsheet Community Stadium to walk 17 miles from Bolton via Bury to Rochdale.

“If I hadn’t had the ski trip booked, I would have joined you for the whole thing,” he says. “Stewy is a top guy and MND is just the most horrible disease, so I’m delighted to be here to help.”

Holland and Stewart played in the newly promoted Ipswich team that finished fifth in the Premier League in 2001 and competed in the UEFA Cup the following season. They have remained close friends and when Stewart told him of his MND diagnosis, Holland was in “complete shock”. Making an eight-hour round trip to Bolton to step out into the wind and rain, he says, is the least he can do.

At another time, a walking tour of the textile towns of Lancashire and Greater Manchester would be ripe for a long read on The Athletic. So many of these clubs have been reliant on the largesse of local businessmen — Jack Walker at Blackburn Rovers, Dave Whelan at Wigan Athletic, Eddie Davies at Bolton — and have struggled to adjust to a different, less romantic era of ownership in the 21st century, whether local or not.

Bury were expelled from the Football League in August 2019 due to unpaid bills and were almost forced out of existence — but the club is alive again, competing in English football’s ninth tier, and the lights are on at Gigg Lane as they roll out the welcome mat.

It is another poignant stop because we have been joined by the family of Lenny Johnrose, who played for Blackburn, Preston North End, Hartlepool United and Burnley but is remembered most fondly at Bury, where he had two spells. He died in August 2022, at the age of 52, after living with MND for five years.

“This is what Len wanted,” his wife Nadine says of the weekend’s event. “He wanted football to come together to help. I remember him saying when he was first diagnosed that if football could get behind this, it would make a big difference — because it is underfunded and needs more profile. We have seen the rugby league world get behind MND with Rob (Burrow). If football can do this, it will make such a difference.”

She spots Louise Stewart. They have been in regular touch over the past 12 months but this is the first time they have met. They hug and Louise thanks Nadine for all the support she and her family have given Marcus. Nadine responds by repeating that her husband would be delighted to see what Stephen and Marcus are doing. Walking away from that meeting, feeling overcome, Louise needs a moment of privacy.

There is another emotional moment when Steph Houghton joins us in Jericho, between Bury and Rochdale. She has spent the afternoon at the Etihad Stadium, an unused substitute as Manchester City beat Manchester United in the WSL, and is grateful to be able to join the walk at last.

There are big hugs for her dad Len and her brother-in-law Kevin and for Louise Stewart, with whom she has formed a close bond since their husbands’ diagnoses. “Steph always helps me find some inner strength,” Louise says.

Over the past few years, Sinfield has made the rare journey from sporting hero to awe-inspiring national treasure. A formidable and much-admired rugby league player, he has found far wider acclaim for his charity work, particularly since his friend and former team-mate Burrow was diagnosed with MND in 2019.

Through a series of events — most recently seven ultra-marathons in seven cities in seven days last year — Sinfield has raised more than £8million for MND. To suggest he is a hero to the MND community would be an understatement. His arrival, scheduled for 9pm in a pub car park in the Rossendale Valley, between Bacup and Burnley, is eagerly awaited.

He is on time — and on brand. He has been home from holiday precisely two hours and here he is on a hillside with the wind howling and rain lashing down. The weather has been pretty grim all weekend, but this is something else.

“I thought I’d join for the coldest, wettest, darkest, most miserable part,” Sinfield says. “No, I’m only joking. I wouldn’t have picked this if I’d had a choice. But I’m here, I’m passionate about the MND community and it’s great to be a support.”

Even more than Sinfield and the weather, what sticks in Louise Stewart’s mind from that “horrendous” Bacup-Burnley leg is an encounter with a 65-year-old woman, soaked from head to toe as she waited at the top of a hill to hand over her spare change. She explained that her husband had died from MND within months of his diagnosis. She was desperate to support in any way she could.

Sinfield and a small group of walkers arrive looking bedraggled. But Barlow has a spring in his step — figuratively as well as literally. It transpires that Sinfield took one look at the 55-year-old and gasped in amazement, saying that, growing up as an Oldham fan, he idolised Barlow from the terraces at Boundary Park. “I couldn’t believe it,” Barlow says. “Me, Kevin Sinfield’s hero! That’s made my day!”

We have another hero in our midst. Kirkland is back among us, having disappeared for 24 hours to play in Liverpool’s legends game against Ajax. He comes back raving about Steven Gerrard’s contribution and about the atmosphere at a packed Anfield, but he made a quick getaway because he was desperate to get back to us.

“I love walking and it’s something where I’ve found I can help people and various different charities like this one,” the former Liverpool goalkeeper says. “I really want to come back and finish the job.”

At this point, 10.30pm on Saturday, we are two-thirds of the way through. We are due at Anfield at 5.30pm on Sunday. There are 60 miles to go and Kirkland says he intends to do the whole lot.

Is he serious? As he strides off into the night, heading towards Accrington and Blackburn at a remarkable pace, it becomes clear that he is.

Another night, another blur of memories. The former Blackburn and Bradford manager Gary Bowyer, a patron of the Darby Rimmer MND Foundation, wins great acclaim for turning up somewhere near Accrington in the dead of night, but immediately finds his orienteering skills under scrutiny. “How can someone who managed Blackburn not know where Ewood Park is?!” Haworth asks him.

Given the logistical challenges, the event is a remarkable success. After all those hours trudging through Bacup, Burnley, Accrington and Blackburn, arriving at Preston North End’s Deepdale Stadium just as the sun is rising on Sunday feels like a significant step — particularly with Kirkland leading the way.

One thing that is underlined on almost every leg of the journey is people’s generosity. There are so many on-the-spot donations, many of them from people who have seen the BBC’s coverage.

One guy, a Swindon Town fan far from home, hands over £40 because he wants to help Darby, who he recalls scoring the winning penalty in a League One play-off semi-final against Charlton Athletic in 2010. Others cite a more direct link to MND. By the end of the trip, we count £863.01 in a collection bucket.

There are rumours of a big crowd building outside the DW Stadium, home of Wigan. Haworth, who had an up-and-down spell as a player here, suggests they are probably waiting to lynch him. It couldn’t be further from the truth. He is clapped in, as is Barlow, his strike partner at Wigan more than a quarter of a century ago. “Told you,” Barlow tells him.

Barlow, best remembered for his spell at Everton in the mid-1990s, is relentlessly upbeat, even as he explains why he got involved with March of the Day. “I lost my mum to MND three years ago,” he says. “As soon as I heard about this, I fired off an email and by the end of that day I was signed up for the core team.

“And it’s funny. We were up in Bacup last night: windy, the hail coming down, your feet aching, you’ve had no sleep… and it’s nothing compared to what people with MND have to go through. That’s what we’re here for: raising money and raising awareness for MND. I had some great achievements in my football career but, for satisfaction, what we’re doing here matches any of them.”

His mother would be very proud of his efforts, I suggest. “She’s here with me,” he says, producing a small urn containing her ashes. “I said to myself, ‘If I’m going to do it for my mum and for MND, I would love to be able to bring her with me.’”

There is a commotion in the car park at a cinema complex on the East Lancs Road. People have come to see Kung Fu Panda 4 or Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire. They weren’t expecting to see a large number of footballers, past and present, limbering up in the car park.

There is a crowd gawping at the former Liverpool and England midfielder Jamie Redknapp. He turned 50 last year but you wouldn’t guess it. Mothers and grandmothers are going weak at the knees, asking for selfies while little ones tug at their sleeves.

Redknapp is a long way from home. “But I had to come for Marcus,” he says. “We met when we were 15 and we roomed together on England schoolboy trials. We just hit it off and became really good friends. For something like this to happen to him at 50 years of age, it’s hard to comprehend. But when you think of what people have done by coming together to raise money and raise awareness, it’s fantastic.”

There is a sizeable contingent from Manchester City’s women’s team, with Houghton joined by team-mates Chloe Kelly, Esme Morgan, Sandy MacIver, Mary Fowler, Kerstin Casparij as well as coach Gareth Taylor and some of his staff.

Houghton’s former City and England team-mate Jill Scott is here. That is another friendship that dates back to adolescence, on the junior football and athletics scene in the north east, encompassing their time at Loughborough University as well as memorable days with club and country.

Scott says she can “feel the love” around the whole event, but she feels “quite bad” that she is joining through for the final few miles “while you guys have been walking for three days in hailstones all through the night”. But her support has been felt throughout. The coffee shop she co-owns is, like Scholes’s gym, one of the event’s main sponsors.

More than that, she and others in the women’s football community have rallied around Houghton from the moment Darby got his diagnosis. “Steph and I have been friends for a very long time and I think we’re all just trying to help as much as possible because it’s such a cruel illness,” she says. “We’re all trying to raise money and raise awareness and hopefully find a cure.”

On the final stretch to Goodison Park, Holland says he “can’t believe how much I’m aching”. “I did 20 pre-seasons and I never felt this bad,” Stewart’s former team-mate says.

But we’re nearly there. There is a crowd by Dixie Dean’s statue. It includes Darby, waiting for his brother Kevin, his wife Steph, his father-in-law Len and the many other family members and friends who have joined the walk over the course of the day.

It is 56 hours since we left Bradford. Just as we left Valley Parade on a wave of goodwill, so has it felt since we arrived on Merseyside. “It’s so nice to see everyone coming together,” Kevin says. “If you look at the first three clubs we went to on Friday — Bradford, Leeds and Huddersfield — they can’t stand each other, massive rivals, but they all want to be part of this.

“Everyone wants to help. And it’s really important to be able to give support. There’s so much work and research going on. Ideally, we want to find a cure, yes. But not just a cure. We want research so there can be better treatment, better advice on nutrition, better support.”

Kevin highlights the importance of a positive mindset, pointing not only to his brother but also to Chris Rimmer, with whom he launched the foundation in 2019. Rimmer, who served in the Royal Air Force, had been living with MND for four years by then. He died in 2022. “Chris was an amazingly positive person,” Kevin says. “He would have loved what we’ve done this weekend.”

So has Stephen. He looks thrilled as we go pitch-side at Goodison for a photograph — his brother Kevin, an Evertonian, making sure we have remembered the blue banner rather than the usual red one.

The two brothers are as close as it gets. The past five years have brought them even closer. Still, it’s nice that they still have football to argue about.

On the short walk from Goodison to Anfield, we walk past the murals in honour of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, Trent Alexander-Arnold and others.

Alexander-Arnold’s mural is based on the words he uttered breathlessly after the final whistle of the Champions League final in 2019: “I’m just a normal lad from Liverpool whose dream has just come true.”

Darby, too, is a normal lad from Liverpool whose dream came true. Not to the same degree as Alexander-Arnold’s — six appearances in total, one of them in the Premier League — but it came true. Among the millions of boys brought up in this football-mad city, he was one of a tiny number who achieved his ambition of playing for Liverpool or Everton.

Some of the core team have worried privately about the Anfield leg. One of the group suggests that if they’re playing Liverpool’s anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone” when we arrive, it might be too overwhelming emotionally for them, never mind for Darby and Stewart and their respective families.

Instead, we arrive to the sound of cheers and applause from around a thousand well-wishers, Darby leading the way in his wheelchair, pushed by Houghton, with his family and the Stewarts close behind. Darby sees familiar faces in the crowd. He looks overcome as we file into the ground.

So does Stewart. We gather at the Kop end, where he once scored a spectacular winner for an Ipswich team riding high in the Premier League (“Jamie Clapham put the ball in, I took it around Stephane Henchoz, took it around Sander Westerveld and managed to squeeze it in”). But right now he is overcome by the size of this crowd. “I never expected this many people to come today,” he says, looking around in disbelief.

Once everyone is seated on the Kop, BBC reporter John Maguire reads out a speech on Darby’s behalf. He begins by paying tribute to Rimmer, whose “fight and determination lives on through the foundation”, and to Stewart, whom he describes as inspirational. There is barely a dry eye in the house.

Forty-eight hours have passed since those emotional scenes at Anfield. Back to life, back to reality.

For Marcus Stewart, Monday brought an appointment with the physiotherapist. Tuesday was back to hospital to see the neurologist. “And I hate those neurology appointments,” his wife Louise says. “They fill me with dread. And this is a time when Marcus is doing so well.”

It is two years since Stewart’s diagnosis. How long he had been living with MND by that stage, he doesn’t know. So far, its effects have been relatively small, but he knows full well how debilitating the disease can be when it spreads through the nervous system.

Nobody in the MND community calls the disease incurable. They say there is no known cure yet. The “United to End MND” coalition of researchers, charities and patients argue that, rather than being incurable, MND is underfunded in terms of research and support.

There has been a notable shift in the way Darby and his family talk about MND. There is so much emphasis now on wanting to find a cure. There is a growing clamour for the publication of all the data from the MIROCALS trial exploring new ways to treat the disease.

“There might not be a cure in one month, two months, six months, one year, two years,” Barlow says. “It might be a lot further down the line. But there might come a time, maybe two or three years down the line, when there’s a breakthrough to help people who have got MND.”

Louise Stewart says she occasionally finds her mind drifting towards the future. “But Stephen has said to me, ‘Don’t let your head go into that dark place.’ And he’s right. He lives day by day. So does Marcus. It must be a football thing. The pair of them, their energy radiates through. Fundraising and bringing people together is a really good way of challenging that energy rather than spending time worrying about the future.

“Marcus has always done this thing where he will come up to me and he will just say to me, ‘I love our life.’ And he still says it now. He’ll say, ‘I know there’s that cloud, but I still love our life.’”

Houghton has been another tower of strength for Louise. She has spent the past five years trying to juggle her own career, as one of England’s most high-profile women footballers‚ with looking after her husband. She announced this week that she will hang up her boots at the end of the season, paying tribute to Stephen, “my husband and inspiration”.

“Sometimes you think, ‘Why us? Why has this happened to people like us?’” Houghton said at Anfield. “But at the same time, we’re fortunate that we have a great family support network. Many families don’t have that when this illness comes to them. That was the idea of the foundation, to support as many people as we can, all over the country.”

By this Friday, a week on, March of the Day had raised more than £155,000. Including Gift Aid donations, the total is creeping towards £200,000 to invest in research grants and support.

The success of the event has given Darby and Stewart more hope as well as an increased feeling of the football community rallying behind them.

But despite the success of the event, there was still a feeling among many of those involved that this was just a beginning — and that if the football community truly unites behind a cause like this — the way the more close-knit rugby league community has been inspired to get behind Burrow and MND — the money and awareness it could raise would be on another level entirely.

“Absolutely,” Louise Stewart says. “Football is one of the most powerful entities in the world with the reach it has and the money it has. I’m sure football as an industry could do more. This is the tip of the iceberg.”

Louise says that, to her and her husband, and to Darby and Houghton, the scenes at both ends of the walk, at Valley Parade and Anfield, will “live with us forever”.

For all concerned, it felt like the start of something — of football doing its bit to ensure that, in the words of the anthem that was left unsung on the day, they will never walk alone.

(Top image: Stewart and Darby; Darby begins the march in Bradford. Photos: Oliver Kay/The Athletic. Danny Lawson/PA Images via Getty Images)

 



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