The glass cabinet in the corner of the living room is full of precious keepsakes. There are football boots and a neatly folded Liverpool training top emblazoned with the initials ‘SP’.
In one of the framed photographs there is Stephen Packer, a gifted youngster whose beaming smile would light up a room, sitting alongside Sir Kenny Dalglish at the club’s under-nines signing day at the Kirkby academy in April 2012.
“We were unbelievably proud,” says dad Chris.
Blessed with blistering pace and a thunderous shot, the prolific attacker had attracted interest from clubs across the north west of England. However, his heart was set on following in the footsteps of his Anfield hero Luis Suarez.
That dream was cruelly wrecked. On November 25 2012, Stephen died of a rare form of cancer called Ewing sarcoma — just 16 days after going into Alder Hey Children’s Hospital to undergo tests. He was nine years old.
A sense of shock and anguish permeated throughout the club and the tight-knit community where he lived. There was a minute’s applause from a capacity Anfield crowd prior to the next home game against Southampton, with then manager Brendan Rodgers dedicating that Premier League victory to Stephen and his family.
Ten years on, his memory still burns bright at the academy. Each week hundreds of youngsters play on the Stephen Packer Memorial Pitch. There’s also a stand, a changing room and an annual youth tournament at Kirkby named in his honour.
To mark a painful anniversary, his parents Chris and Vicky, and sister Susie, returned to the academy to lay flowers close to the plaque that reads, “Always happy and smiling, Stevie was so proud to represent his beloved Liverpool. Highly thought of by the coaches with his willingness to learn, he demonstrated and possessed the skills to develop into a very talented footballer. Forever missed, he will never walk alone.”
Stephen Packer was special – and not just with a ball at his feet. His vibrant personality endeared him to everyone he met and there was the remarkable courage he showed in the face of unimaginable hardship.
A decade may have passed but the void he left behind remains vast. This is his story.
“There’s a line in the sand. There was life with Stevie and then there’s life after, which is very different,” explains mum Vicky.
“Personally, I’ve found this year very difficult because he’s now been gone longer than we actually had him. We all feel that. With Stevie’s birthday in October we always try to do something as a family as you feel like you can celebrate that. But the anniversary is different.”
To her left sits husband Chris and to her right their 25-year-old daughter Susie, at home in Aigburth, south Liverpool, where Stephen grew up.
“You just don’t know from day to day how you’re going to feel. Sometimes I just disappear off on my bike all day,” says Chris.
“When Stevie was here, we must have sat in this room a thousand times and said, ‘How lucky are we? We’ve got everything — a lovely house, the perfect family, two beautiful kids’. Everything we could possibly need. We never once took any of it for granted, ever. We never got greedy. We were always grateful for what we had. And then that happens. You can’t help but think, ‘why us?’. You don’t expect to outlive your kids.”
“I’m six years older than Stevie and we used to fight like cat and dog every day,” says Susie. “He used to love winding me up and I’d take the bait every time, but I loved him to bits. We were just a normal family. It doesn’t feel like 10 years since we lost Stevie. We’ve just lived in a bubble all that time and floated through life. He would have been 18 last year.”
Full-back Luke Chambers and goalkeeper Harvey Davies, who have both been on the bench for Jurgen Klopp’s side this season, were in the same under-nines team as Stephen at Liverpool.
“There was also Alfie Devine, who is at Tottenham now, and Luke Mariette, who is at Blackpool,” says Chris. “Stevie also played in the pre-academy with Lee Jonas, who then went to Everton before later returning to Liverpool. No one can say Stevie would definitely have made it as he still had a long way to go, but he lost that chance.”
Sitting on top of that glass cabinet in the living room is a well worn Adidas football that Stephen adored and spent so many hours kicking around outside.
“I know it sounds ridiculous but he was probably three or four when we realised he had a real eye for it,” says Vicky. “We’d never say anything ourselves but other parents at footy tots would say, ‘Just look at that boy go!’. I think it was because he was so fast and could run so well with the ball and strike it so well. He caught people’s eye because he was so distinct.”
“We knew quite early physically in terms of power and pace that he was a machine,” adds Chris. “He just had this natural ability. I used to take him down to the field and he’d hit the ball 50 yards and get it to land at my feet, no problem. I don’t think he realised how good he was.”
His performances for junior clubs Marshalls FC and then Mossley Hill had scouts flocking to watch him play. He was invited to train at Liverpool’s development centre at the age of six after impressing John Thompson, the club’s head of youth recruitment for the south of the city.
“Stevie scored 15 goals at the Egerton tournament in Knutsford and over the course of the day there must have been half a dozen scouts enquiring about him. I’d go off to the burger van, turn around and they’d be there chatting to Stevie’s coach at Mossley Hill, Martin Doig,” recalls Chris.
“He’d usually play on the right wing and he could rocket the ball so hard it was in the net before the keeper had even seen it. A fella from Manchester United came over, showed me the badge and said, ‘Is it even worth me speaking to you?’. I told him, ‘It’s very flattering but Stevie is with Liverpool and absolutely loves it there’. United, Manchester City, Everton and Burnley among others all said, ‘If anything changes, give us a call’.
“They won that tournament and the following week Liverpool promoted him from the development group into the elite. He loved the fact it was more serious and the pitches were better. He’d get upset at times because he wasn’t scoring as many goals as before, ones and twos compared to sevens and eights. I had to explain to him that he was now up against the best kids from all around. Liverpool took the boys to Melwood to meet the first-team players at Christmas. He was buzzing about meeting Suarez and getting his shirt signed. He loved Suarez.”
Ian Barrigan, who discovered Trent Alexander-Arnold, was Liverpool’s head of local recruitment and he wrote to Stephen’s family in October 2011 offering him one of the 25 prized places in the under-nines squad for the following 2012-13 season — the first age group where players can be registered.
“After we did the fitness testing, Andy O’Boyle (then head of academy sports science) came up to me and asked, ‘Who’s Stephen Packer? His stats are unreal. If he doesn’t end up playing for Liverpool then he’ll go to the Olympics’. He was miles ahead of the other boys in terms of speed, power and agility,” says Barrigan.
“He could run all day. His stats put him up there with the best nationally. He also had a fantastic attitude and a lovely family around him. A top kid who never caused a single problem.”
Chris: “Ian told us, ‘This is a 10-year programme and we want Stephen here for the duration. Don’t worry about the technical ability, let us worry about that. The natural power and pace is the stuff you can’t teach. Just bring him here and we’ll do the rest’. They had high hopes for him.”
Vicky: “We just kept it all very low key and told him to enjoy every training session and get what he could out of it. We didn’t shout about the fact he was at Liverpool and Stevie was always very humble about it. He had an old head on his shoulders.”
Chris: “Sometimes you’d hear other kids say to him, ‘Do you play for Liverpool? Are you dead good at footy?’. Stephen would always reply, ‘I just love playing football’. I’d sit down and watch a game on TV with him but within 10 minutes he’d be bored, he just wanted to be outside playing. He was my little shadow. Everyone knew him around here. We’d be walking down the road and some random fella would say, ‘Hi Stevie’. He got a free fishcake from the local chippy for being so polite. If you gave him a few quid to buy some sweets he’d always come back with two of everything and give half to Susie.”
Vicky: “He just seemed to connect with people. He had big eyes and a cracking smile. He was far more sociable than we are. He was fun, generous and kind. He knew from an early age what buttons to press to wind Susie up. He was such a character. There were times when if he did something slightly naughty he would walk himself to the bottom step of the stairs. You’d try not to laugh.”
After returning to Kirkby for pre-season training in the summer of 2012, Stephen started to complain about discomfort in his left leg.
“He just didn’t have the same pace and power,” says Chris. “The physios checked him out but said there was no damage muscle-wise. Everything pointed to growing pains. It would come and go. The local doctor said the same thing so we told Stevie not to worry and that it was just a case of pushing through. We have no beef with anyone over that. The symptoms Stevie had tallied with growing pains. No one knew what was going on underneath.”
On the morning of Friday, November 9 2012, Vicky was walking her son to nearby Sudley Junior School when he told her he couldn’t go any further. She took him straight to Alder Hey and Chris met them there.
Vicky: “Stevie said to me, ‘I just can’t walk mum, my leg is killing’. I said, ‘Right, we’re going to get an X-ray because you’ve put up with this for long enough’. It was a three-hour wait at the hospital. He was doing some colouring while we waited and by the time we were seen the pain had actually eased off. Initially a nurse thought it might be the meniscus in his knee but he said they would run some bloods as well.”
Chris: “When they got those results they told us, ‘The battle Stevie is fighting isn’t with his knee, he’s fighting a different battle’. They sent him for an MRI scan. On the Friday night we got called into a quiet room and that’s when they told us they had found a lump. You just knew from the way they said it that it wasn’t ‘we’ve found a lump but we can do something’.
“On the Saturday morning they showed me the MRI pictures. In the well of his pelvis there was something light coloured the size of a satsuma and next to it something darker and triangular. Two tumours. His pelvis and the top of his femur had been chewed away by them. It was just horrendous. Because he was so athletic and tight muscular wise, it hadn’t presented until so late because everything was so well supported.
“I said to the consultant, ‘We’re going to lose him aren’t we?’. And he said, ‘Yeah’. On the Tuesday they gave him a CT scan to establish whether it had spread anywhere else. It turned out it was in his organs, his bones and his skull. It was so aggressive that treatment wasn’t going to make any difference.”
Vicky: “We found out on the Friday and on the Saturday they let him come out to go to his best friend’s birthday party. He played football with his mates that day. It’s just mad, you can’t comprehend it. We beat ourselves up constantly — that doesn’t leave you — but he wasn’t always in pain. I’ve got a photo of Susie lying on the floor here with the dog and there’s Stevie doing a forward roll on her back to annoy her. That was about a week before. When we went back into hospital, the staff at Alder Hey were great. They kept him in a room off a general ward rather than moving him to a cancer ward. But they said he would cotton on to how serious it was before long so it was best for us to tell him first.”
Chris: “How do you tell a nine-year-old child something like that? I thought if anyone is going to do it, it’s got to be me. It was in my mind for a few days. I told him there was something inside him doing him damage and that they can’t get it out. I was crying. I said, ‘If I could change places with you son I would’. He replied, ‘But dad I don’t want you to die’. There he was lying there more worried about me than himself. That broke me. He had the courage of a lion. What haunts us to this day and always will is that he was too young to understand properly but old enough to be frightened. And that’s a killer because it’s never going to change.”
Vicky: “I remember on one particularly awful day in the hospital, my sister-in-law turned up with a gift from my netball club. The girls had bought Stevie an iPad. We took it into him and he was so pleased with it. He said, ‘How lucky am I?’. It just beggars belief that he could be in that situation and he was still himself, so grateful and thoughtful. His first thought was always for other people.
“On another occasion there was this serious conversation going on at his bedside about something awful and the staff asked Stevie if he had any questions. He said, ‘Yeah, does anyone want a Pez?’. He was offering his sweets around. He just burst that moment and put a smile on our faces.”
Stephen passed away on Sunday, November 25 2012 — just 16 days after walking into Alder Hey. “Sixteen just happens to be his shirt number,” says Vicky, pointing to the framed shirt on the wall, which is signed by all his Liverpool team-mates.
Chris: “When Stevie woke up on that Sunday morning his chest was really rattly and over the course of the day it got louder and louder due to the build-up of fluid in his lungs. We held his hand all day until 9pm when he passed away. They assured us he wasn’t in any pain.”
Liverpool as a club rallied around them. Brendan Rodgers invited Chris and Vicky into his office at Melwood, while it was arranged for Susie and a friend to meet the players. The family were guests of honour at the game against Southampton, where 44,000 fans stood to applaud their son.
Susie: “Brendan was so kind. He told us about his own experience of losing his parents and having to deal with that.”
Chris: “Brendan gave me his number and said if he could ever help in any way to call him. He offered to sort out some counselling and I did go down there on one occasion to see (sports psychiatrist) Steve Peters.”
Vicky: “It was lovely of Brendan. There’s no way Chris would have ever gone to see someone otherwise. The fact it was someone associated with the club got him there.”
Chris: “After the Southampton game, Brendan dedicated the win to Stephen in his press conference and Steven Gerrard signed his shirt for us. Match of the Day mentioned Stephen that night and I’ve got that on video. Liverpool as a club were just brilliant. When Stevie was in hospital, academy doctor Nigel Jones would phone every evening. Afterwards, they couldn’t have been more sensitive. We never asked for anything but they did so much for us.”
Stephen’s death had a huge impact on players and staff at the academy.
“It knocked all of us sideways — it was utter devastation,” admits Barrigan. “He was such a great kid with his whole life ahead of him. He’s always in my thoughts.
“In other years we’d had eight to 10 kids make it all the way through the academy programme. In Stephen’s year, only Luke Chambers and Harvey Davies are still there. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. It affected a lot of people. How do you make sense of one of your mates dying at the age of nine?”
In May 2013 Chris and Vicky joined staff from the academy to embark on the Three Peaks Challenge in Yorkshire. The 25-mile hike and the inaugural Stephen Packer Memorial Cup at Kirkby raised £12,000 for Alder Hey, where there’s a room named after Stephen.
Suarez joined his parents to hand over the money and said, “I admire their strength. It must have been difficult to come back to the hospital but they find more strength from being able to help other families who are going through what they did.”
Chris: “That was special because Luis was always Stevie’s favourite.”
At the academy they renamed the all-weather pitch after him and spectators watch on from the Stephen Packer Stand. When current academy boss Alex Inglethorpe decided to dedicate each of the changing rooms to legends of the club like Dalglish, Gerrard, Ian Rush, Jamie Carragher and Robbie Fowler, he added the name of Stephen Packer.
“Unfortunately, I never got to meet Stephen as he passed away during my first week at Liverpool, but I know from speaking to the staff here how highly he was rated both as a player and as a person,” says Inglethorpe.
“From the naming of the pitch to the dressing room, it’s been very important that we’ve kept his memory alive and kept that connection with his family who are amazing people. You’ll Never Walk Alone isn’t just something that’s sung at this club. It’s something you have to live.
“I’m sure the academy holds some painful memories for them but I hope when they come and see us it’s a place that makes them smile as they remember Stephen doing what he loved best.
“All the boys here know the story of Stephen Packer and he’s just as worthy of a dressing room in his name as any of those icons who had the chance to fulfil their potential and won trophies for this club. It’s about how you represent the badge and the courage and determination he showed during his battle epitomised what he was like as a boy.”
There’s also a permanent tribute to Stephen in ink on Chris’s right arm. His son’s image is surrounded by nine stars and the words ‘watching over me from up above’.
Chris: “One star for each year he was here. This means the world to me. He brought a lot of light to people’s lives. I also got a lion on my chest and on my back it says ‘courage doesn’t always roar’. That’s to do with what Stevie was like in hospital. He never once complained. He just took it on the chin.”
Vicky: “A few of Stevie’s old mates have also got tattoos to remember him. They wanted to take Stevie to university with them. His best friend Joe has his dates in roman numerals on his arm. It’s nice that they still think of him and miss him that much.”
Chris, now 56, was a manager for a building supplies firm. They gave him a year off on full pay after Stephen’s death and he subsequently went back part-time to look after their website. He recently stepped down. Vicky, 53, works part-time as a surveyor. Faced with such heartbreak, how have they summoned the strength to keep going over the past decade?
Vicky: “Having an amazing daughter has helped. Susie was 15 at the time and could easily have gone off the rails. But she got her head straight, went back to school, studied hard, passed her exams and got herself a good job as a lawyer. We live through Susie’s future.
“We muddle through. There’s a big hole. You’re stuck in a way because he’s always nine. Physical activity helps. Chris goes out on his bike and I play netball. We’re lucky to have the support of a lovely family and friends. I’ve spoken to counsellors who say ‘aren’t you angry?’. But I always say we can’t be angry with anyone. We couldn’t put this at anyone’s door.”
“Having the best here also helps,” says Chris as he touches Vicky’s arm affectionately. “Some days it’s difficult because you get in a downward spiral. You think, ‘what’s the point? It’s never going to change’. There’s the expression there’s light at the end of the tunnel but there isn’t in this tunnel. You don’t want to dive into self-pity because everyone has problems, but I only want one thing and it doesn’t matter what I say or do, that light is never going to be there.
“It’s hard not to beat yourself up over stuff despite knowing there’s nothing we could have done. You’ve got lads he went to school with going for their first pint of beer with their dads and going off to university. I uninvite myself from certain social things because it would destroy me.”
“It makes me smile when I think of all the happy memories he gave us,” Vicky adds. “Like the photobombing when we went to visit his granny that last summer. A few months later he was gone. It was short but we were lucky to have Stevie in our lives.”
(Top photo: Packer family)