A yellow banner from the 2006 Masters takes pride of place on the walls in the Cox family home. The memento is framed along with some newspaper cuttings from that year’s tournament – it was Lefty Mickelson’s year. You have to apply to attend the Augusta extravaganza; tickets are a lottery. For many golf fans, it remains an unfulfilled dream. Seán Cox was there twice. “He was jammy,” Martina Cox laughs. He was, and as we chat about her husband’s life – the family life – up to five years ago, it becomes clear that sport, in all its guises, was and remains at the heart of his personality.
His job – he was a director with a precision cables company in Dundalk – was demanding. Everyone now knows that he is a devout Liverpool supporter. He also served as chairman of Dunboyne GAA club for two consecutive terms. Being the chairman of a big GAA club is the equivalent of being both CEO and agony aunt to the entire club.
“A lot of hard work. And time, yeah.” Martina says.
“But he loved it. Like, Seán was often seen up in the GAA pitches in the tractor cutting the grass. Seán…if he wanted to do something, he threw everything into it. It did actually take over a lot of time. Some nights he’d come home relaxed and other nights he would be wound up after a meeting…there are so many opinions, I suppose. But overall, he really enjoyed it. Jack, our son, was hurling and playing Gaelic and that is how Seán got involved in it.”
Jack and Seán spent many summers zigzagging backroads into Croke Park to watch the Dubs playing in Croke Park. Seán grew up in Clondalkin and Martina in Walkinstown and like many Dubliners, they made the short hop across the border to sedate Meath while remaining absolute city loyalists at heart. Martina was an Irish dancer and their girls, Shauna and Emma, continue to excel – Emma recently danced at the world championships. So, it doesn’t take long to build up the picture of rich, hectic weekends.
Seán Cox never had time to become a particularly good golfer. But he loves the sport. For his 50th birthday, he organised a trip to Portugal with some friends to coincide with the Masters. They’d golf like mortals in the sunshine and watch the gods do their thing in the evenings. It was a blast. So, he organised a similar outing for his 51st. And his 52nd. And his 53rd. He wasn’t long back from that trip when his brother Martin scored tickets for Liverpool’s upcoming Champions League game against Roma.
Everyone pulls together. Other GAA clubs were doing things as well. Raffles, poker, collections. You name it, it was done for Seán— Martina Cox
What happened that night – April 24th, 2018 – has been well documented. The three Roma fans who attacked the Irishman were jailed for what seemed like mystifyingly light terms and have now resumed their normal lives. Their names have been published but why bother distinguishing them with individuality? They were just lowlife, spinelessly covering their faces with scarves that night and walking into Anfield while Seán Cox lay on the street. The Cox family never received anything by way of explanation, let alone apology.
“Not the perpetrators. The Italian club did reach out and apologise in the very early stages and that was it. Nothing else,” says Martina.
She doesn’t dwell on that night any more and agrees that the episode is the ultimate example of human stupidity.
“So stupid. And sometimes people would say to me: ‘Poor Seán…wrong place wrong time.’ And I kind of get a bit thick about that because…No! Actually, Seán had every right to be there, and he was in the right place. They shouldn’t have been there. So I do get a little bit mad about that. I have had so many people…on the flights to Liverpool, supporters would come over, in a very nice way, and they say they were there that night. ‘I had my son with me. I couldn’t believe what was happening. This could have been anyone.’ I don’t really give it a second thought now. There is too much else to think about and focus on – more on the positives. Because it would put you in a bad place.”
As we chat, ripples of applause drift across the room. The afternoon session of the world snooker championship in the Crucible is on. Seán is watching John Higgins destroy Kyren Wilson. He’s tired after a morning physio session and from posing for the photographs to accompany this article. It’s been a hectic week. Miriam O’Callaghan was down to film a piece for RTÉ's Prime Time to mark the fifth anniversary of the attack. Martina laughs as she says that her husband quite enjoyed that: the lights, the energy, the presenter’s sincere warmth. He recognised her, of course, from the television.
For a man whose speech and movement has been severely impaired, he retains a strong and charming range of communication skills. He’s got a good grip of a handshake and uses it and raises your own hand to his forehead in a gesture that is kind of papal. He understands everything. The brutality and cosmic bad luck of those 17 seconds of thuggery has conferred on Seán Cox a curious kind of fame. He’s recognised fairly frequently when the couple are out and about: Liverpool and Dublin supporters make a crowded church. People come up and ask how he is getting on.
“I think there is a genuine interest,” Martina says.
“Seán kind of likes it. I don’t go into the, do you know you were hit on the head? I don’t go down that road with Seán. But he knows there was an incident. And he can’t articulate but he would wave and give a thumbs up. And people always ask in a very nice way. I still get letters and different things in the post. Older people sending Mass cards. Not as much now but they trickle through. We have a chest full of cards from the beginning.”
In the beginning, the surge of empathy from the local community in Dunboyne and throughout the country was overwhelming. After getting the shocking phone call, Martina scarcely had time to throw some things in a bag before she was on a flight to Liverpool, where she spent the next weeks while Seán lay critically ill.
Organised a vigil
On the phone, she learned from the children that their home had become the focus of the neighbourhood. “They’d be saying: Mom, people are just dropping in food! There’s food all over the place! At the start, they were a probably a bit freaked out by it. Because I think they associated it with that Irish thing. People gather when they don’t know what to do. They even organised a vigil. The GAA club and Fergus McNulty, his close friend, were amazing. And when we got to Beaumont, they said, look, we are going to start fundraising. And that’s how it all kind of started.
There was a hoist so we could lower him into the pool. He was having his mojitos watching the world go by. He was enjoying it— Martina Cox
“You know, one of the first things we did was a fun run up in Dunboyne. And, like, the number of people that turned up! They came in their droves, you know? That’s I think what communities do; everyone pulls together. Other GAA clubs were doing things as well. Raffles, poker, collections. You name it, it was done for Seán.”
Jack Cox turned 21 when his father was in the Walton Centre, fighting for his life. Shauna was 18 and in college. Emma was still in fifth year in school. They were each at a crucial stage in their progression when the family’s life was upended.
“They were amazing. They were very grown-up about it. They were obviously broken-hearted to see him as he was. To see your Dad actually fighting for his life. But children can be so resilient.”
Resilience defines the Cox family story. They faced up to this with a collective courage that is astonishing. Seán was in rehab in Sheffield when they made the decision to return to Anfield to attend a match in 2019. It was a risk, because the place where Seán was attacked is right beside the stadium. Anyone would understand if they never wanted to go near it.
“That was kind of a little bit bittersweet, a little bit emotional. But, you know what, we’re fine. And Seán loved it. He absolutely loved it. They, the club, were so amazing to him. And it was just great. Like seeing his reaction, you know, when he got there, we knew it was the right thing to do. Even though he’s back there and not the same. You know, he’s in a wheelchair at the end of the day. And he can’t express fully how he feels. But his face kind of said everything and when the crowd was belting out You’ll Never Walk Alone: then you know you’ve done the right thing.”
On a macro level, Liverpool Football Club is a sports behemoth and a business. But in its corridors, it is, like any organisation, defined by its people. The Cox family was still at Seán’s hospital bedside when Kenny Dalglish, the ultimate Kop god, called into visit. He sat with the family in the coffee shop. The waitress was so star-struck that she asked Dalglish and Dalglish alone what he would like. Dalglish the football man can be canny and curt: the man the Cox family met was warm and relaxed and couldn’t do enough.
Seán Cox and Dalglish are now on friendly terms. There are many photos of the Liverpool players carrying banners with Seán Cox’s name. When Liverpool won the league title for the first time in 28 years in 2018, then-chairman David Moores paid tribute to the Hillsborough victims and to Seán Cox in a message. In a legal sense, the assault on Seán Cox happened outside Anfield: it wasn’t the club’s responsibility. Morally, and emotionally, it was different. “I like to think any club would have done the same,” team manager Jurgen Klopp told Matt Cooper in an interview with the Cox family. During the fundraising period, the club was centrally involved. Now, any time Seán wishes to see a match, Martina just has to send an email. They were most recently there for the riveting 2-2 draw with Arsenal.
‘Hugging each other’
“We are not in touch with the club on a weekly or even monthly basis now. But you get that sense that he is very much welcome. Nothing is a problem. And people always want to see him. They would make a point of bringing us down. Seán and Jack were in the dressing room. Jack said that was amazing. Seán loved Mo Salah and Salah was grabbing him. When he first met Klopp, the two were just hugging each other. I think Klopp was quite emotional, hugging Seán.”
The family live in a pleasant estate on the fringes of Dunboyne. The home is gorgeous and welcoming and subtly recalibrated to allow Seán to move freely in his wheelchair. A trust fund, to which well-wishers donated in their droves, made what was a seismic life shift manageable, but the family took the decision to close it a while back. “We just felt there are other deserving causes out there too,” Martina says.
It’s mid-afternoon and quiet. The five years seem both timeless and to have vanished in a flash. Jack, now 27, is in Australia. Shauna is teaching in Dubai. Emma is at college. “It is what it is,” Martina laughs. “I think it’s good for them to go out and see places. And like everyone, we have WhatsApp and video calls.”
Martina was a buyer for Dunnes Stores before Seán was assaulted. Now, she works part-time at that job. Seán’s rehabilitation is essentially full time: speech therapy two mornings per week; physio five days a week, trips to Santry, recent classes on an exoskeleton at DCU where Seán got to walk across a room. Having a few hours to watch the snooker on a sleepy Tuesday is a treat for him. But they are determined to continue to seek good times. They go out with friends. They returned to the resort in Portugal they have always loved.
“We could make the same memories and go to the same restaurants. It was actually really exciting. It was a triumph, yeah. Seán did really well on the plane. Once you have that bit of help around you, anything is possible. He loved the holiday. Being out in the sun and around the pool. There was a hoist so we could lower him into the pool. He was having his mojitos watching the world go by. He was enjoying it. And his rehab is like work. He needs rest time from that.”
Whether it was a gift or pure determination that permitted Martina to hang on to the essential enjoyment of life they share is difficult to know. But her response to this awful setback chimes with a “get-it-done” mentality that was always there.
“It’s just…me,” she shrugs.
“Just: let’s move forward. You kind of have to accept where we are at and then move on. If you get dug into what has happened in the past, you just become too bitter and you can’t move on. That’s my philosophy. It is all about making new memories. Seán is the way he is. We can still enjoy life. It’s just different. That is the way I see it. Look, he has improved. I don’t think his speech will ever come back. That is my opinion. But he understands, even from a physio point of view, he has become stronger. He is better at assisted walking. It is all steps, and it comes in little pockets.”
By late afternoon, Seán Cox is a little tired and the snooker match is one-sided. In saying goodbye, I ask him if Arsenal are going to do it this year. Martina leans in to make sure he has heard the question and a slow smile spreads across his face.
“No,” Seán Cox declares, with feeling.
Once a Red...