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James Beattie talks about the little girl who changed his life
EVERYONE in the 32,000-strong capacity crowd at St Mary's Stadium could see that the little girl walking onto the pitch with Saints' captain James Beattie was very unwell.
Six-year-old Sophie Barringer, who was accompanying her hero as one of the Saints mascots, had no hair and was pale.
She had recently undergone a course of chemotherapy to combat Wilm's Disease, which attacked her vital organs with cancerous growths.
But James' memory of that day - September 19, 2004 - isn't of a sick child but a bubbly one, who was full of energy.
The photos in the Daily Echo the next day of little Sophie, swamped by the red and white kit of her favourite football team were striking. But what was more striking was the unlikely relationship which had sprung up between the glamorous Premiership footballer, who had played for England, and the little girl who had been in his company for no more than ten minutes.
Sadly Sophie lost her battle with cancer just three months later in December 2004 aged just six.
Even now when James speaks about her, as we chat at his parents-in-law's home in Botley, his eyes redden and his voice thickens with sadness.
James has escorted countless mascots onto the pitch during his football career, but he can still vividly remember that first meeting with Sophie.
"I'd been briefed about her just before I met her," he says.
"I remember holding her hand as we walked down the tunnel. Because I was captain at that point we were first out.
"I asked her if she was nervous and she said no' which made me chuckle a bit because I knew I was - I always get nervous before a game.
"It's never easy meeting children who are ill but when I met her I saw her attitude and how joyful and positive she was.
"It's a lesson to everyone because you hear people moaning about little things and she wasn't like that at all."
Sarah, James's wife, who was also deeply affected by Sophie, remembers how much Sophie touched James at that first meeting.
"James always used to meet the match day mascots but he never used to talk about them," she says.
"But after he'd been on the pitch with Sophie he was so bowled over by her and he told me all about her. Later on I met her too and she was absolutely amazing."
After that first meeting, James stayed in touch with Sophie and her parents Lin and Mike, visiting her at school after she had gone into remission.
James smiles at the memory of how lively Sophie was at that meeting.
"She didn't have any hair but she had this hat on with dreadlocks which she loved- have you seen those pictures?" he asks, chuckling.
"She was exactly the same. Touch wood, I'll never find out what chemo is like but for a young child to go through," he trails off. "I expect it's absolute hell and she'd been through that a number of times and even then she was just joyful and happy."
Tragically Sophie's cancer returned.
One of her last wishes was to see James again so he and Sarah went to visit her at home in Eastleigh during her last weeks.
"When we first walked in it gave her a big lift and that was great to see," says James.
"Then we'd turn round to talk to Lin and Mike for 30 seconds and she'd gone to sleep. She was so exhausted that just a minute of talking was enough to take the energy out of her. But then she'd wake up again and she'd be drawing pictures and stuff like that - trying to do the stuff normal children do. That was just before she passed away."
Sarah says sadly: "It was just so unfair. It shows that life can be so cruel sometimes."
She adds that having become parents themselves - their son James, or JJ as they call him, is almost two years old - it made me realise what Sophie and her parents went through even more.
"Having JJ ourselves, it hits home," she says, falling silent for a moment.
"Oh, you just feel for them - so bad - and if it ever happened to us"
James adds with emotion: "I don't know if she totally knew the situation she was in but obviously she knew she was ill and had been for treatment. I just think that people could take a leaf out of her book and it's a pity that she isn't still here to keep spreading that joy."
He still feels a strong connection to Sophie today, keeping a picture of her in the mirror of his car.
"She keeps me safe when I'm driving," he says with a smile.
After Sophie died James and Sarah vowed they would do anything they could to help Lin and Mike raise funds for The Sophie Barringer Trust - which went onto gain charitable status and become Sophie's Appeal - which they set up in 2003 when Sophie was diagnosed with Wilm's Disease.
The aims of the charity are to raise funds to support the social, emotional and educational welfare of sick children and their families or carers while being treated either in hospital or the community.
When they got married in summer 2006, rather than receiving presents Sarah and James asked their guests to make a donation to the Sophie Appeal, raising some £7,000.
"I don't know what emotion that makes you feel," says James, "Whether it makes you feel proud or happy or what, because obviously there's the reason why you're doing it. I know Lin and Mike were tremendously grateful for the money but you'd rather not raise the money and Sophie still be here."
The couple have also lent support to the charity on a number of other occasions, including visiting sick children in the Piam Brown ward at Southampton General Hospital where Sophie was treated.
"I wouldn't say it's something I enjoy doing but it's something I want to do," says James, acknowledging how upsetting he finds the hospital visits.
"It's really hard when you get there - how do you start a conversation with a child who's terminally ill? But in the end, it's usually the child who starts chatting."
Sarah adds: "When we first went to visit the hospital it was when JJ was about three months old. I got home and just burst into tears - I absolutely bawled my eyes out."
This year Sarah who, along with James, is a patron of Sophie's Appeal, is more involved in the charity than ever.
A professional model, she is staging a catwalk fashion show at the Botley Park Hotel and hopes to raise thousands of pounds.
Although she has lots of experience of modelling at catwalk shows herself she says that the organisation involved has been pretty overwhelming.
"This year I've woken up and gone to sleep thinking about the fashion show every single day!" she laughs.
The project is Sarah's baby although James does have two jobs - to recruit his footballer friends to take part in the show and to walk down the catwalk himself.
For more information about Sophie's Appeal, visit: Sophieappeal.org
Would you like to have a go at being a model and help raise funds for Sophie's Appeal?
Sarah Beattie is looking for male and female models of all shapes and sizes to take part in her charity fashion show at the Botley Park Hotel on October 19.
As well as getting to be a model for the night and share the catwalk with some famous faces, there's even the chance of being picked up by a model scout.
Sarah says: "We need 12 female and four male models of all shapes and size over the age of 12.
"We don't want stick-thin people, we want people who will make the audience think I could wear that'.
Anyone who is interested in taking part should send a full length picture along with their vital statistics to the address below.
The finalists will be invited to a competition night at the Botley Park Hotel on September 21 where a panel of judges will pick the winners. Modelling agencies will also be invited to the event.
If you would like to take part send a full length photo of yourself along with your vital statistics and contact details to: Sophie's Appeal Modelling Competition, c/o Sally Churchward, Southern Daily Echo, Test Lane, Redbridge, Southampton, SO16 9JX by September 5.