10 Aug 2020 by John Edwards

Phil: Ecky was an inspiration to me

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*Shake on it - Phil Parkinson chats with Mark Eckersall before kick-off at Kidderminster. Picture by Michael Ripley.

There's an image ingrained in Phil Parkinson's mind that tells you everything about Mark Eckersall and exactly what Altrincham Football Club meant to him.

Ecky, as he was known by all and sundry, had just eased himself into a seat near the back of the away stand at Kidderminster's Aggborough Stadium when Alty boss Parkinson spotted him not long before kick-off.

Taking his life in his hands, Phil vaulted the barrier down at pitchside and began an ascent that eventually took him alongside a slightly bemused but pleasantly surprised Ecky, who had come prepared by the look of the bag at his feet.

Big lad, big appetite would have been the natural assumption. Provisions to see him through the afternoon. Well, they were, but not the sort most fans take to an away game.

'I couldn't believe it,' said Phil, as he reflected on the shattering news of Mark's death this morning. 'I didn't realise just how ill he actually was until he started showing me the contents of that bag.

'When I spotted him from down on the touchline, I thought I'd go up for a quick chat and thank him for travelling all that way. I nearly decked it going up all those steep steps - he would be right up at the back!

'Anyway, we shook hands, and I asked him how he was doing, and he said ok, pointing to the contents of the bag. He'd basically brought with him all sorts of medication and even a sick bowl. I think that's when it really sank in how special Ecky was and how dedicated he was to the club.

'He was so ill he might have been sick at any moment and he had to take all sorts of medication at set times, but all he was bothered about was making the long trip to Kidderminster and making sure he got behind the lads.

'He deserved something special on the pitch that afternoon, but he didn't get it, because we put in one of our poorer performances. But I used the example of Mark as a way of ensuring it didn't happen again.

'I told the players all about him at the end of the game and what he had gone through to offer his support. I left that echoing in their ears, and we never looked back after that. I would like to think that, by demonstrating that desire and determination to remain an Alty fan in the most trying circumstances, he left an imprint on the upturn in our fortunes. Ecky's footprint is all over that.'

Phil's first encounter with Ecky was just as memorable.

'Brian Flynn introduced me to him,' he said. 'I think it might have been a Cheshire Senior Cup tie at Winsford, and I just remember Brian saying he wanted to introduce me to Mark Ecky.

'It soon became apparent to me that he was just what I'd want a fan of the club to be like. He was very forthright and said exactly what was on his mind.

'I think I'd come out with the usual siege mentality stuff in an interview after the previous game. You know, the whole world's against me, that kind of stuff, and it had been interpreted in some quarters as a bit of a jibe against the fans. Ecky quickly put me right on that and pointed out that the odd gripe on special media or wherever would be heavily outweighed by what most fans felt.

'He said the vast majority were right behind what I was doing and the few did not represent the mass. He really opened my eyes and helped me see everything in a different light. It's no exaggeration to say he brought me closer to the club.

'We've had great success over the three years, but it was tough for me at the outset, because there was a lot of hostility over what had happened to the club in the preceding few seasons. Then I listened to Ecky on that night at Winsford, and considered his perspective on how things stood, and it really did change my mindset for the better. I've a lot to thank him for.'

Phil revealed that Ecky's devotion to Alty made a lasting impression on the players as well as himself.

'They all thought the world of him,' he said. 'They were all so impressed with the way he'd undergo gruelling treatment for his illness, finally get back home and immediately set about organising travel for the next away game. He was incredibly resilient as well as incredibly dedicated to the club.

'So many people have been in touch with me today about the terrible news, and a lot of the calls and messages have been from players. They've all seen it on the group chat, and lots of them want to contact Ecky's wife and family to express their sorrow and the admiration they had for him.

'I think it's perhaps a bit too early for that. I think the family need a bit of time, but it shows the impact he had on all the players. That has to be unusual, I would have thought, for an individual supporter to have made that much of an impression on the players, but that's Ecky for you.

'I think inspiring is the word that probably best sums him up. Every club needs that type of person in the ranks, and we are lucky to have had him. We all knew it was coming, because we knew the extent of his illness, but that doesn't make it any easier. You still don't think it's actually going to happen.

'It has, though, and he is going to be missed by everyone at the club. Our thoughts are with his family. All I can say is he was brilliant for me, and it was a privilege to have known him.'

In an emotional tribute, Alty press and media officer Brian Flynn said: 'Ecky was one of my closest friends and the funniest person that I have ever met.

'He did an incredible amount for the football club that he loved so dearly, from painting the ground during the school summer holidays as a teenager through to organising the coach travel for what must have been more than 20 years, up until our last coach trip to Hereford in February.

'He was the fans' leader at home and away matches; it wasn't the same when he wasn't there, and he worked tirelessly to encourage people to support Alty as much as they possibly could.

'I have been fortunate enough to have enjoyed a huge number of memorable times with Mark, and my feeling of loss today is greater than any that I have experienced outside of my own family.'

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