Footballer dies aged 40 as Aston Villa legend Stiliyan Petrov pays tribute to dad-of-two pal | The Sun

TRIBUTES have been paid to a dad-of-two who died from motor neurone disease – aged just 40.

Ex-footballer Tom Stevenson left medics stunned as he bravely fought off the illness for nearly a decade.

They first diagnosed him with the rare condition in 2013 and gave him no more than five years.

But Tom refused to let it hold him back and worked tirelessly to raise awareness with a number of charity events involving footie stars.

They included ex-Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho, comedian John Bishop and former Aston Villa captains Gareth Barry and Stiliyan Petrov.

Tom skippered Boldmere St Michaels and also played for Bedworth United, Solihull Borough and Racing Club Warwick.

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Last night, in a heartbreaking tribute, his family told how he overcame every single hurdle with "bravery, dignity and grace".

And former Villa ace Petrov applauded his courage – telling how they formed a close bond after he was diagnosed with leukemia.

Stiliyan, 43, told The Sun: "We supported each other through the toughest of times.

"Tom was someone who really appreciated life. He managed to carry on this resilience through everything.

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"He never let any of his friends know his struggles and always tried to be as positive as possible.

"We loved to be together and it was a pleasure to be around him.

"He never lost the desire to keep fighting and was an inspiration to everyone who knew him.

"His battle has touched people all around the world and had people far and wide backing him.

"He has shown everyone that you have to appreciate everything in life."

He said more research was needed to understand a possible link between life limiting conditions and heading a football.

Stiliyan added: "There is no answer to this question. We were both athletes who ate and lived well but both of us faced a life ending illness.

"But this needs to be looked into because there is a growing number of people going through this.

"Nobody knows but we need to raise funds to understand the link better."

Tom launched his Battlefund charity in the wake of his devastating diagnosis.

It helped him come to terms with the condition and raise awareness of the incurable illness which affects more than 5,000 adults in the UK at any one time.

Speaking in 2018 he told how he was given a prognosis of two to five years. He added: "The doctor told me to get my affairs in order and sent me on my way."

But he chose to inspire others with the time he had left.

He explained: "The moment I told people the news the support was breathtaking.

"I was totally overwhelmed and wanted to thank people in a way that would bring my community together."

Tom's sister, Claire Harrigan, said: "I never thought this time would come.

"You got over every hurdle with such bravery, dignity and grace, you never once moaned or said it wasn't fair. You just dealt with everything that came your way.

"Tom, you are my baby brother, my best friend, my inspiration, and I will treasure every single memory I had with you.

"I will continue to live through you and use your strength in every single part of my life. Losing you has left a massive hole in our family.

What is motor neurone disease?

MOTOR neurone disease (MND) is a condition that impacts the brain and nerves, causing weakness over time.

It affects up to 5,000 adults in the UK at any one time. It is most common in people in their 60s and 70s.

Symptoms happen gradually and may not be obvious at first.

Early signs can include:

  • Weakness in your ankle or leg – you might trip, or find it harder to climb stairs
  • Slurred speech, which may develop into difficulty swallowing some foods
  • A weak grip – you might drop things, or find it hard to open jars or do up buttons
  • Muscle cramps, twitches and spasms
  • Weight loss – your arms or leg muscles may have become thinner over time
  • Stiff joints which limit range of movement
  • Difficulty stopping yourself from crying or laughing in inappropriate situations
  • Saliva problems, where it pools in the mouth or becomes sticky
  • Weakened coughing, which makes it harder to clear the throat
  • Breathing problems

There is no cure, and MND can significantly shorten life expectancy.

But treatments, which can reduce the impact of symptoms, include specialised clinics, physiotherapy, speech and language therapy, diet advice and medicines to reduce muscle stiffness.

Source: NHS and Motor Neurone Disease Association

"You were just the best. I kissed your head, told you I loved you, and you gently fell asleep.

"You will live on through Orla and Theo. I love you so much, miss you and I'm totally heart broken, go and play football and party in heaven.

"Please stay with us all Tom so we can feel you around us, I love you baby bro."

Amanda Devlin, from the MND Association, said: "Tom was surrounded by love – from his strong and steadfast wife Lian, his amazing mother Margaret and father John, his wider family and all his wonderful friends who all gathered around him and joined him along his journey.  

"Not that Tom allowed himself to mope. He did not complain or say it wasn’t fair.

"Tom, his friends, and family raised so much vital awareness of MND and important funds for his Battle Fund.

"All who knew Tom spoke of his sheer determination, resilience, and grit. He liked to look out for everyone else, and make sure they were okay.  

"Tom had a smile on his face through every adversity, a smile that will be sadly missed by all of us.

"Through him, many people learnt more about this cruel disease and the work of the MND Association.

"We are truly grateful to Tom and Lian for being incredible advocates for the Association and for helping us to spread the word."

MND is a fatal, rapidly progressing disease that affects the brain and spinal cord.

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It attacks the nerves that control movement so muscles no longer work and can leave people locked in a failing body, unable to move, talk and eventually

Tom's long fight is remarkable given the condition typically kills a third of people within a year and more than half within two years of diagnosis.

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