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'My son is with me always'

THIS may be the season when, finally, the caricature of a professional footballer changed from that of a Bentley-driving, Cristal-swigging ignoramus beloved of a thousand radio phone-ins to a reminder that they and their families are human beings.

Take your pick: Gary Speed's two sons leading the Wales team out at Cardiff; the stricken faces as Fabrice Muamba lay on the pitch at White Hart Lane; the applause ringing round Anfield on Saturday as the Aston Villa fans chanted the name of their captain, Stiliyan Petrov, a man fighting leukaemia.

Or Brad Jones saving a penalty at Blackburn on Tuesday night and then pointing to the stars in memory of his son Luca, who died in November from leukaemia at the age of five.

In contrast, the tears shed by supporters for teams that toss away titles or totter towards relegation appear especially cheap.

"It has been a difficult 18 months with losing my son," Jones said. "It has been hard but maybe he gave me that.

"Luca is with me every day. I carry him everywhere. His face is on my washbag and his toys are in my travel bag. In that sense, I have someone to watch over me."

The next time Luca will watch over his dad will be on Saturday at Wembley, when Liverpool's third-choice goalkeeper will play in an FA Cup semi-final against Everton.

"When Brad looked up to the sky last night, it was a special moment for football," said the Everton midfielder Tim Cahill.

"It's a crazy world, the way things pan out. To have two Australians playing in a semi-final is going to be massive. I've sent Brad a text but I guess his mind must be a whirlwind of emotions at the moment."

If the lot of a reserve goalkeeper is waiting endlessly for a fleeting opportunity, then being third-choice must require the deepest reserves of optimism. All the more so because Pepe Reina is the kind that wants to play in every fixture, no matter how minor. Geoff Boycott as goalkeeper.


Jones had played two matches for Liverpool since Roy Hodgson bought him for £2.5million from Middlesbrough in the summer of 2010, the summer he was to have spent with the Australian World Cup squad in South Africa, before a call from his former wife, Julie, caused him to abandon the tournament and travel to the south of France where Luca and his mother were living. His boy's struggle against leukaemia was to last 18 months.

Of the two games, one was utterly forgettable, the other stuck in the mind for the worst reasons. One was a goalless draw with Utrecht when Liverpool were giving away free tickets to ensure Anfield was full for John W Henry's first visit to the ground he had just taken possession of.

The other was the disastrous Carling Cup tie with Northampton that was lost on penalties in a rainstorm and provided perhaps the defining image of Hodgson's time on Merseyside; the manager on the touchline, soaked to the skin, trying vainly to direct affairs.

A fortnight ago, any thoughts Jones had of Wembley would have been of where he might sit in the stands. Mostly, he would have been turning his mind to the imminent arrival of another son, Nico, who was born last Wednesday.

Then, Reina was sent off at Newcastle and, astonishingly at Ewood Park, the same fate befell Alexander Doni, whom Kenny Dalglish had brought in from Roma to understudy Reina.

Jones, the understudy's understudy, walked into the Ewood Park rain to face a penalty, taken by Yakubu.

He later said that he remembered the penalty sessions they had on a Friday while playing together at Middlesbrough.

He guessed right and saved what was a feeble spot-kick from the Nigerian, with gloves that bore the name of the Anthony Nolan cancer trust.

"This wasn't something I expected. The last few days have been hectic after Dani (his partner) gave birth to Nico," he said. "All I've been doing is getting into the routine of having a baby in the house."

While Jones prepares for Wembley, Doni is likely to be swallowed whole by frustration. He had waited all season for his opportunity and before Reina's dismissal had told Italian radio that he was tiring of life on the bench and missing Rome.

Wembley would have given his season a shot at redemption.