Wigan youngster lives his dream as Liverpool mascot alongside football hero
It was a dream come true for 11-year-old James Johnson as he walked out at hand in hand with his hero and game captain, Virgil van Dijk.
It got even better for James, who had a kickabout with idol van Dijk and even showed off some of his tricks to the Dutch international ahead of Liverpool’s 4-3 victory ofer Tottenham Hotspur.
James’s older brother Jack, 15, lives with a progressive muscle-wasting condition, Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD), and visits Derian House Children’s Hospice, in Chorley, regularly.
Having a sibling with a life-limiting condition can have an impact on a young person’s own emotional wellbeing, and James is also supported by the hospice where he receives counselling and emotional support.
James is a devoted Liverpool fan, and so when the opportunity to be mascot was made possible by Lancashire Football Association and Liverpool FC, he was thrilled.
James said: “I met my hero and it was amazing! It was something I will remember forever.”
James and Jack’s parents Alex and former Wigan Warriors star Andy Johnson founded Joining Jack, a lobbying charity which campaigns for research into the condition for which there is currently no cure.
Mum Alex said: “James loved every minute of it! Virgil van Dijk is his hero.
"It was just the most amazing opportunity.
"I started crying. It was so nice to see because James has had a rough few months and now he has been able to live his dream.
“The funny thing is James’s brother Jack actually supports Man United so he was wearing his full Man U kit when we watched James walk onto the pitch with Virgil van Dijk – there’s a lot of football rivalry in our house!
“James receives sibling counselling at Derian and he loves hanging out with his counsellor, even just going out for a McDonalds – it means a lot to him.
"His brother Jack visits Derian to have a swim in the hydrotherapy pool, he visits for massages with Derian’s complementary therapist, and he loves seeing his friends at the hospice Friday Night Club socials.
"The hospice is there for us all as a family.”
Simon Gerrard, CEO at Lancashire FA, said: “We were pleased to be able to connect Liverpool FC with the Sibling Support team at Derian House to provide a memorable experience for James and his family.
"It proved to be one small reminder of just how powerful football can be in making a difference in people’s lives.”
Andrea Fontaine-Smith, sibling support worker at Derian House, said: “It was incredible to see the smile on James’s face as he met his hero!
"Opportunities like this can make a huge difference to a young person.
“Siblings are a huge part of the care we provide for families at the hospice as we realise the challenges they can face.
"Without realising, our siblings are often an essential part of keeping family life running, so it is well deserved that they are celebrated!”