A SOUTH Tyneside football fan behind a fundraising appeal set up in memory of two Newcastle United fans killed in the MH17 airline disaster says he is overwhelmed it has topped the £20,000 mark.
Lifelong Magpies fan John Alder, 63, and Liam Sweeney, 28, were among the 298 people killed when their plane was reportedly shot down by pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine.
The pair were on their way to watch their beloved team in a pre-season tour of New Zealand.
The magnificent fund-raising effort was the brainchild of Sunderland-mad Gary Ferguson, from South Shields, who saw the deaths mentioned on the Black Cats fans’ Ready to Go messageboard.
Initially, the idea was to raise £100 for a floral tribute. But last night, it had attracted more than 2,000 donations and the appeal fund stood at more than £20,000.
At the request of the families, the final total will be split between two cancer charities, the Marie Curie Hospice and the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation.
Gary, a father-of-three, said: “I just said wouldn’t it be nice if we could get a little floral tribute together.
“My mate’s wife is a florist, so I just rang her and asked how much it would cost to send a few flowers. I thought we might try to raise £100 and anything left over we could donate to a local charity.”
“But it just went crackers. It has taken me by surprise – the phone hasn’t stopped.
“This is not something I’m used to. I didn’t think when I started it that it would take off like this. It’s a bit overwhelming.”
Gary, a 48-year-old sales manager, has been supporting Sunderland all his life. He said: “I remember the cup final in 1973, when I was seven, and I started going to games in about 1979,” he said.
He has been a regular at home games ever since and knows how passionate the fans of both clubs are.
He said: “Donations have come in from all over the world. Obviously we’ve had lots from Sunderland and Newcastle, but we’ve had them from as afar afield as Australia.
“Liam’s stepmother has terminal cancer and goes to the Marie Curie Hospice in Newcastle, so half the money is going to the hospice. And I was speaking to John’s sister Joyce, who told me John loved the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation, so half the money is going there.”
Newcastle United have confirmed they will wear black armbands as a mark of respect for John, of Gateshead, and Liam, of Newcastle, when the two-game tour of New Zealand kicks off with a game against Sydney FC in Dunedin tomorrow. A further tribute is planned at the Magpies’ first home game of the Premier League season, against Manchester City on August 17.
A minute’s silence was held at Sunderland’s pre-season friendly against Darlington on Saturday and at other non-league grounds across the North East.
Meanwhile, fans from clubs across the world have continued to leave shirts and messages of condolence at a shrine to the pair outside St James’s Park, while fans of both Tyne-Wear derby rivals were united online in their respect for the move.
And Newcastle Central MP Chi Onwurah also praised the fund-raising on Twitter: “Really moved & humbled by what the #SAFC supporters have done for #NUFC fans John & Liam. #tyneandwear #thebeautifulgame”.
Mr Alder’s family issued a statement through Durham Police, which read: “We would like to thank everyone for their thoughts and wishes and incredibly generous gestures, particularly those who have been able to share personal memories of John.
“We are struggling to comprehend what has happened but we are touched and moved by your kind words, acts and the knowledge that so many people saw John for who he was: a kind, courteous man who was much loved as a son, brother, uncle and fan.
“Newcastle United was his life and we are proud of his dedication to the team.
“Our thoughts are with Liam’s family and the families of the other passengers.”
To donate, visit http://www.gofundme.com/brx6wk.