Anthony Knockaert’s heart is raw. The skin is inflamed and peeling across his left breast, the face of his late father Patrick inked on his chest, both physically part of him and no longer there. The man who made him, shaped him, led him here, is now indelible; five hours with the tattooist “didn’t hurt” but grief is a thick, cold needle. Tears pooled, the deep end of mourning. “It’s so tough,” he says. “You can’t get over something like this.”
Anthony’s story, Patrick’s story, entwine with football, with Brighton & Hove Albion, his club, their club. It is not facile or insensitive to meld sport and death, not in this context, because there is no separation: private anguish and a public forum, a howl of agony and a whisper of beauty. Even as he cried, voice squeezed by emotion, Knockaert spoke about joy, the “best year” of his career and the “worst year” of his life.
Knockaert says his football-loving father was a huge influence on his careerMIKE HEWITT/GETTY IMAGES
Brighton sit top of the Sky Bet Championship. After reaching the play-offs last season they have scarcely flickered, 18 league games unbeaten. There is dynamism on the south coast, a fine stadium, an imperious £29 million training ground, a hum of efficiency. Not the heftiest club but ambitious, modest and decent, qualities that Chris Hughton, the manager, exemplifies. There is also deep feeling.
Knockaert, 25, is Brighton’s game-changer, their playmaker. Signed 12 months ago from Standard Liège, the former France Under-21 player has scored 13 goals in 42 league appearances. Impishness is married to effort. “There’s a good bond here, but it’s also about individuals and when you have somebody as popular as Anthony it carries things that bit further,” Hughton says. “He’s good in the dressing room, incredibly funny, always smiling. He’s got a great work ethic too.”
His standing at Brighton, as a footballer and a man, has become evident, a vivid bouquet among salt-streaked wreaths. Two days after Patrick died on November 3, the team won 2-0 away to Bristol City; when Steve Sidwell scored with a lob from the centre circle, he and his team-mates ran to the dugout and held up Knockaert’s No 11 shirt in tribute. In the buzz and adrenaline of release, minds were clear. Commiseration was the only thought.
At home in northern France, Anthony dipped his head and wept. “I was in the chapel of rest with one of my brothers,” he says. “My dad was lying in front of us and it was hard, so hard. I was watching what they did on my phone; a special, intense moment that I’ll never, ever forget. They gave me such support. It didn’t make me happy because nothing could, but it made me feel like everybody was with me.”
A few days later, they were. Hughton had already decided to cross the Channel to attend Patrick’s funeral in Leers, near Lille, but Brighton’s players went with him. “Anthony is an emotional lad; he took it very hard when we missed out on promotion last season, but people can see he cares,” Hughton says. “When we went to the funeral, it was an opportunity to give something back. The players wanted to show how much they cared, too.”
Knockaert was incredulous. “I knew the gaffer was going to be there, but the others . . . It was such a surprise,” he says. “I didn’t know they were coming. They’d planned everything. When I say it was the best moment for me in my life, I hope you know what I mean. My family were so proud, they realised how good this club is, the best I’ve been at. And of course I wish I’d been able to tell my dad about it.
The Brighton squad celebrated their win over Bristol City by holding up Knockaert’s shirtSIMON GALLOWAY/PA
“My mum had rented a room for after the funeral, with family pictures on the wall, videos on the television, all those memories, but what my team-mates had done for me, their gesture, was all anybody could talk about. We still do, even now, my family, with Sophie, my wife. We still don’t know how to say thank you to them. There are no other clubs that would have done that. None. No other people. It was something incredible. I could stay here forever.”
There is blossoming in the ache of loss, but Knockaert remains in the epicentre. All death is sudden and this is familiar, dreaded territory — Steve, an elder brother, died of a heart attack aged 28 when Anthony was 17 — but Patrick’s was brutal. “I can’t describe how much my dad loved football — he lived for it — and he came over to watch me quite often,” Knockaert says. “He was here for our game against Wolverhampton Wanderers [on October 18]. He said he hadn’t been feeling great for a week or so.
“When he got to the game, he couldn’t use the stairs. He had to take the lift. We didn’t know why or what was going on. The day after he told me that he hadn’t slept, that he’d had to get up in the night and go outside for some air, to help him breathe better. I said to him, ‘Just go home, get yourself checked out.’ So he went home, my mum called the hospital, they went in an ambulance and he had all the tests and examinations.
“On the 29th, we were playing Norwich City at home and afterwards I said to the gaffer that I really needed to go back to France and see my dad because he was in hospital,” he says. “Then one of my brothers called me to get there, straightaway. ‘Get home.’ My family were all there by then and they’d been told he had stomach cancer. I saw him on the Sunday and he looked so bad. I’d never seen him like that.
“Four days later, he passed away. It was such a shock. He didn’t have time to try to save himself; like the doctors were saying, it was too late. It came so quickly. We didn’t know anything. Two weeks after he left my house in England, he was dead. I sat with him in the chapel of rest day after day, trying to spend as much time with him as I could. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t go running, stay fit. There was nothing for me.”
Patrick had always been there for him. Therese, his mum too, but his father had nurtured his love of football, juggling his work as a lorry driver to ferry him to training, to matches. “Growing up, it was perfect,” Anthony says. “I always dreamt of doing this with my life and my dad, my family, were always behind me. It’s all credit to my dad because he did everything for me. I’m here today because of him.
Knockaert was touched by his team-mates’ decision to attend his father’s funeral
“When I was 13, I had a tough time. I was playing for Lens but they sacked me because they told me I was too small. When someone tells you something like that when you’re younger, you ask questions of yourself. Is it true? Are they right, are you wrong? My dad did his job properly. ‘Don’t worry, we’ll sort you out,’ he said. ‘Nobody can judge you now. You’re going to work harder, you’ll be back and you’ll be a professional.’ He pushed me forward.”
Knockaert joined Mouscron, just across the Belgian border, and recalibrated, moving to Lesquin, Guingamp and then, in 2012, to Leicester City. A regular in the side who won promotion under Nigel Pearson in 2013-14, he drifted from the reckoning in the Premier League and left for Liège. “For me, it’s like unfinished business,” he says. “I always believed in myself, it was just a question of time, but it makes me more determined to get back there and to do well, to show what I can do.”
It is more than words. “My dad’s dream was to see me back in the Premier League, shining,” he says. “To see Brighton there. Before he passed away, he told me, ‘Please, just go up for me.’ I can’t forget that. It’s something to make my dad proud. If we do it, I’ll know it would have made him so happy.”
Does that not feel like a suffocating, crushing pressure? “No, it’s like a fight, something to push me,” he says. “It’s not pressure, it’s just something I want to do, like a really big desire. I’m playing for a great team and everything is going well and I’m sure we’re capable of it. The club have given me such support and I want to pay it back, pay my dad back. If we don’t do it, it will be very hard. But I promised him we would.”
Gradually, Knockaert has regained physical and mental fitness. When he scored against Queens Park Rangers on December 27, he raced to the bench and collected a framed photograph of Patrick. He kissed it once, twice, three times, pointed to the sky. “It was the minimum I could do for him,” Anthony says. “If I could give my life now to get my dad back, I would do it, but I have to accept what happened, deal with it and become stronger. I do everything for him.”
Tears prickled and pooled again. “I know he would want me to be happy,” he says. “He was 63 when he passed away, but he lived life like a kid; loved it, loved football and he wanted me to be the best. That’s why I work so hard for him. I know he was proud of me. My mum says that if I didn’t call him for a couple of days he would start to go crazy, because he loved me so much. But we talked all the time. And he was always smiling.
The Frenchman is a key part of Brighton’s push for promotion to the Premier LeagueALAN WALTER/REUTERS
“He educated me to be nice to people, to make them laugh — we only have one life and you need to enjoy it. Especially us — we do the best job in the world. Complaining is so disrespectful. He wouldn’t like seeing me sad and I try to be better, but it’s hard when I go home or I’m alone in my car, thinking about him.
“I was on FaceTime with my brother the other day and he showed me my mum watching videos of dad. I started crying straightaway. I miss him so much.
“If he came to a game and I didn’t play well, he wouldn’t tell me, ‘Oh, you were s***.’ He would tell what I could do better, to progress, to make sure I’d be better for the next game. That’s something I really miss now; I don’t have someone who can tell me that. I’ve been so lucky to have a dad like him. I need to get used to it, but I know he’s inside me.” On his skin, and burrowed deep beneath it, too. Beside him in grief, a team of brothers.