I’m in the front room of Sean Cox’s house, sitting with his wife, Martina, on the grey curved sofa that he designed. Opposite us is the large flatscreen TV on which he used to watch sport.
Soccer, golf, rugby, Gaelic games: it didn’t matter as long as it was sport. He would watch “a fly racing up the wall. He has always been an absolute sports fanatic,” says Martina.
Directly behind us is the red pool table where he used to play with his son, Jack. There are photographs on the bookshelves of Sean with Jack and their daughters, Shauna and Emma. Sean’s presence is everywhere, which makes his absence all the more pronounced.
“This was his room, his man cave,” she says.
Martina feels the absence constantly. It is “one of the hardest things. The kids feel it too. He should be here”.
Beside the TV is a photo of Sean wearing a medal on the finishing line of the Night Run he completed in April 2018, “just a few days before”.
Everything now, in the life of the Cox family, is divided into “before” and “after”.
The world of "before" involves 29 years of marriage – 30 this summer – and the births of their three children. It involves the life they made in the home in Dunboyne, Co Meath, which they bought 18 years ago. The countless hours spent on the sidelines of hurling pitches: those belong to before.
So, too, do the Friday nights when Sean would go to the pub for two pints, and then home for dinner; the family trips to Liverpool; the summer holidays to Portugal, where they had been about to buy a home, "when this happened".
"After" is everything that happened since April 24th last year, the day Sean walked out the front door for the last time, carrying a small overnight bag. His younger brother, Martin, had just scored two tickets to the Champions League semi-final between their team, Liverpool, and Roma.
“Sean didn’t even have to think. He had the flights booked before he even got home to tell me,” says Martina. “It was a huge thing to get tickets to this. So it was like, ‘Martina, I’ve got to do this.’ I was like, ‘Go on.’” She smiles. “Anyway, it was done. He’d already booked it.”
It's the first thing I think of every morning when I wake up and the last thing I think of at night. It doesn't go away
Martina heard from Sean later, when the aircraft landed, and then a little while after that, when he texted her to remind her to post something for him.
“It was a normal day,” she says. “I came home. Jack was in here, watching the match. I shouldn’t have been here. I normally would have gone running. I don’t know why I didn’t that night.”
She was in the kitchen when her phone rang.
Less than an hour before kick-off, and just metres from the stadium, Sean and Martin had the bad luck to run into a group of so-called “ultras”, hardcore, highly organised hooligans.
Martina would later discover that Sean was hit on the side of head in a completely unprovoked attack, and collapsed on to the ground. As Martin tried to shield Sean, he was kicked in the back. The whole, brutal attack was over in 17 seconds.
Last year, two men – 21-year-old student Filippo Lombardi, who had been seen wielding a belt like a whip, and 29-year-old Daniele Sciusco – were jailed for violent disorder ahead of the match.
In February, a 30-year-old Italian, Simone Mastrelli, was convicted of the attack, and jailed for 3½ years. The court heard that afterwards, he removed his balaclava and jacket, went inside the stadium and watched the match. The next day, he flew home to Italy, from where he was extradited months later.
“Seventeen seconds of madness created a life sentence for Sean. And for us as well. Because it’s life-changing for everyone, what was done to him. It’s unbelievable.
“It is hard to comprehend. The calculated nature of it; the changing clothes so you wouldn’t be spotted. And then . . . sitting watching the match while you’ve done that. It’s hard to get your head around something like that.”
Martina Cox doesn't enjoy talking about that day. She doesn't like reliving the nightmare aloud. She doesn't relish the media attention at all. The reason she's doing this – raising publicity for next Friday's fundraising match between the Liverpool and Irish "legends" – is "for Sean," she says.
“He would do the same for me. That’s why we’re doing this, because he deserves it. He deserves the best.”
She is, she adds in a phone call after our interview, “his voice now”.
She is angry, but she doesn’t dwell on it. “You know what – it’s not going to do me or anybody any good. There’s no point.”
Instead, she says, her focus is “all about Sean and getting him to the best place in his recovery. I have enough going on in my life that I’m not wasting any of my energy on people like that.
“But I’ll be honest with you. It’s the first thing I think of every morning when I wake up and the last thing I think of at night. It doesn’t go away. I still wake up and go, ‘Did this actually happen? Has this gone away yet?’ But it hasn’t. It’s very hard.”
Bleed on the brain
The first she knew of the attack was that phone call. It was Sean’s sister-in-law, Aisling. Her husband Peter had called Martin, after his wife hadn’t been able to reach him.
By the time Peter got hold of Martin, he was already in the ambulance with Sean. “Peter got into the car and came straight over here.”
While he was on his way, “Aisling rang me. She was very vague, because the information she had at that stage was very vague.”
Martina didn’t immediately think the worst. She didn’t panic or start packing a bag. “I just wasn’t thinking at that level.”
But then, 20 minutes later: “I got another call from a nurse in Aintree Hospital and she basically said, ‘Look, you know, Sean has had a bleed on the brain, and he has gone to theatre’.” The next 24 hours would be critical, the nurse said. “She said you need to make your way over.”
After that, “it was just absolute sheer pandemonium . . . absolute blind panic. It was the not knowing what to do. We all felt very helpless. The house just started filling up with people. The kids were ringing my sisters, the neighbours, everyone was coming in.”
There were no flights that night, so Martina and Peter didn’t get to Liverpool until the next morning, when Sean was already out of theatre.
The first thing Peter said to her when he picked her up was not to look at her phone. The news was all over social media. In the taxi on their way to the hospital, her phone kept pinging, with “loads of texts from people going, ‘Please tell me that’s not Sean’”.
He opened his eyes for 35 minutes. And I swear to God, we actually thought we'd won the Lotto. It was massive for us
When they finally got to see Sean, in the Walton Centre in Liverpool, where he would spend the next almost five weeks, "it was just horrific. He was on a ventilator, with a swollen head, [in] bandages, not looking like Sean at all. I was devastated. And also because it was done to him.
“When people say to me it was an accident, it wasn’t. He was savagely attacked. To see him there just lifeless . . .” her voice falters. “And you’re so helpless, there’s nothing you can do.”
Sean spent the first days after surgery in an induced coma. After he was taken out of the coma, and weaned off life support, “you’re sitting there waiting and waiting for something to happen. And very little happened.
“We just sat there, and talked to him, and willed him on. We played songs to him, and held his hand. You don’t really know whether they can hear you or not, but you like to think they can.”
About four weeks after the attack, when preparations were being made to repatriate Sean to Ireland, where he would spend the next four months in Beaumont, he suddenly opened his eyes. "He opened his eyes for 35 minutes. And I swear to God, we actually thought we'd won the Lotto. It was massive for us."
At the Liverpool centre, the family was given a patient diary to fill in every day. You don’t get the diary back when you leave hospital. The idea is that later, when you’ve recovered enough, you come back with your family to collect it.
One day, Jack wrote in the diary: “Hi Dad, today’s my birthday. I’m 21, and me and Mum and Richard are going to Nando’s tonight for my 21st.” “His big night out was Nando’s, which was the best thing we could find.”
Martina looks upset as she talks about this. “Sean has missed so many milestones. That part kills me.”
Since he moved to the National Rehabilitation Hospital (NRH) in Dún Laoghaire last October, "he's been home here twice. Only for a couple of hours, a year on, but just to have him in the house was amazing. That was probably one of the biggest things for us.
“We’ve been living here without Sean, without his presence, and it’s just awful. And he’s missing so much. You know, just day-to-day things. Shauna passed her driving test, she’s after getting a car, and he hasn’t seen any of that. And Jack is after passing his driving test too.
“Even things like, I changed my car – he would have been involved in that. Emma’s doing her Leaving Cert: he would have been the one that would have been ‘Are you upstairs studying?’”
It’s hard for her to see the progress he’s making, especially when she sees Sean every day. “People who don’t see him for two weeks go: ‘Oh my God, he’s really come along.’ But it’s very slow.
People have just been so good. We can feel them just willing Sean on. The goodwill from everyone around us is what's keeping me sane
“You could go in one night and he would just be absolutely bunched, just want to sleep, and we just accept it. We’ll just sit there with him, and talk to him, and he’ll maybe open his eyes. But then there’s other nights that you go in, and he is bright and engaged. It depends on how he’s feeling in himself.
“He’s trying really hard with the speech. He’s finding it quite difficult, but there are more words coming.”
Helping him to communicate is the next big challenge. Martina is anxious to explore technological solutions. She’s hoping that someone might read this interview and contact her with ideas. “Maybe there’s something out there that we’re not aware of.”
What gives her hope for his recovery is the fact that he has always thrown himself into everything with huge commitment. Before the attack, “at one stage, he was about two stone overweight,” Martina says.
“And he had high cholesterol. The doctor said he was pre-diabetic. He was like, ‘Right, I’ve got to sort this out.’ It was literally two or three days before Christmas.
“Being Sean, he just kicked straight into action. He cut down immediately on his portion sizes, drank less. He started running. He started cycling. He was golfing. He lost two stone in six to eight months. And then he marched straight back up to the doctor.”
His stay in the NRH has been extended until June, and after that, the family is fundraising to secure a place for him in a rehabilitation unit in the UK, because there are no other rehab facilities in Ireland. He will need ongoing care for the rest of his life.
Sometimes, she says, “he’ll know your name; other times he won’t. His short-term memory wouldn’t be great. But he does remember an awful lot from the past. Things like cursing are automatic, so that comes easily.” She laughs.
He has discovered a love of music too, and sings in the therapeutic choir. He knows that he was hit on the head, but they don’t talk about it. She wants to surround him with positivity.
What has kept her going? “The support that we’ve had for the last year,” she says. “People have just been so good. We can feel them just willing Sean on. The goodwill from everyone around us is what’s keeping me sane. I am tea-ed and coffee-ed out at this stage. And people have sent really nice cards from all over.”
She was very touched when small children sent their pocket money to contribute towards the fund for him.
She has set two milestones for Sean. The first is “that he can go back some day and collect his diary, and be able to say, this is where you were and look where you are now.”
The other one is to get him back to Portugal, their happy place.
“He pushed us into a lot of things, because that was his character. I won’t say ‘was’. . . That is his character. He is very enthusiastic. He loves to live life to the full. Very much of the moment type of guy. Probably quite impulsive, which is a good thing.
“We work well together. I would have been a little bit more reserved about things. And he was always the one to say: ‘Come on, life is for living.’”
The Legends for Sean Cox tribute match takes place at 7.45pm on Friday, April 12th in the Aviva, Dublin. A team of Liverpool FC legends, managed by Kenny Dalglish and captained by Ian Rush, will take on the FAI legends, managed by Mick McCarthy and captained by Robbie Keane. Tickets are available at ticketmaster.ie/LFC. You can make a donation at supportsean.com