HE apologised when there was no need to.
The giant figure of Matt Crooks was silhouetted on the sideline of the pitch by the fading lights at Sincil Bank.
Ostensibly he was there last Friday night to speak about how his flying header in front of a heaving away end had just sent Rotherham United six points clear at the top of League One.
But there was another reason, a much more pressing motive, why the midfielder was sharing his company with Radio Sheffield’s Adam Oxley and me.
He wanted to pay tribute to his best mate.
Jordan Sinnott had tragically died 13 days earlier and Crooks had since thought of little else than the former Huddersfield Town trainee who everyone who was close to him knew as ‘Sinn’.
“I’ve been getting stick from the gaffer this week for not being able to head the ball very well for someone who is 6ft 5in tall,” the match-winner said. “Hopefully I’ve proved him wrong tonight.
“It was nice to score in front of all the fans. They have been terrific with me since it happened and so have all the players and the staff.”
Then the emotion caught up with him.
“I’d like to dedicate this goal to my best pal, Jordan. It’s been a tough couple of weeks. “I’ve ... er ...” There was a pause. “Sorry.”
Strangely, his size made him appear even more vulnerable, his hulking frame somehow accentuating his suffering.
I reached out and put an empathetic hand on his shoulder. It seemed a long way up.
Crooks is suffering but coping, finding comfort in being one of the leading figures behind the ‘Sinnott 25’ shirts appeal.
Football has come together after clubs were asked to send in jerseys bearing Jordan’s surname and age and they will be a moving backdrop when the funeral takes place before eventually being donated to Sport Relief.
“It’s really taken off,” he said. “On the Tuesday morning after it happened we got put in a WhatsApp group with a few of Sinn’s mates he played football with and some of his family and friends.
“We were just trying to get as many teams as we could involved. We’ve got all the Football League clubs in England, most in the National League and loads and loads from grassroots clubs, which is incredible.
Two great mates
“We’ve also got teams like Roma and Alkmaar. It’s just ridiculous. We even got a shirt from the Seattle Seahawks NFL team this morning. It’s been incredible.
“It takes your mind off it a little bit being able to see that and the outpouring of generosity from the general public.”
Crooks was answering questions on the touchline in his black club tracksuit and the strain was evident in his lean features. He takes care of himself physically and is in magnificent shape but has yet to regain the weight he’s lost during the grieving process.
There was one shirt he didn’t mention: his own white ‘Sinnott 25’ base layer that he’d worn under his jersey during the game and revealed to the crowd after a 1-0 victory over Lincoln City had brought an eighth win in nine league games.
The Millers look after their own and the player struggled again when he tried to articulate how much it has helped him in his time of turmoil.
“It’s been fantastic,” he said. “Woody (centre-half Richard Wood) knew Sinn as well. It was the same when (assistant manager Barker) Richie’s brother passed away recently. We all got round him and stuck together and they’ve done the same for me.”
Supporters have played their part and as he talked about them he cast a glance towards Sincil Bank’s away stand. It was empty now but not much earlier it had been teeming with warmth and respect from 1,700-plus travelling followers.
He sighed deeply and his voice trailed away: “I don’t know what to say ...”
“The fans care about you,” I told him. “Can you let them know how you are?”
“It’s still very raw, pretty surreal really still,” he replied. “I don’t want to believe it. Football is a bit of a release for me, I guess — just coming in to training and having a bit of normality in my life.
“I’ve got my missus at home and my little boy. He’s making me smile again, which is nice.
“You’ve just got to appreciate life. The gaffer always bangs on about it. Sometimes I roll my eyes but he’s right.”
Crooks' Twitter tribute to his pal
Last Friday’s goal had been Crooks’ tenth of the campaign, already his best ever return in a single season, with 14 games remaining.
His celebration, as he dropped to his knees, the forefinger on each hand pointed upwards, his eyes seeking out his mate in the sky, told you this one had more meaning than any other.
“I’ve wanted to score in the last three games so badly,” he said. “Finally tonight I’ve done it. That’s for Sinn. He’ll have liked that one, I’m sure. He loved his football. He was a fantastic person and he will be sorely missed.
“It’s nice to score. I probably should have had more this season. Last year I got nine — six with Northampton and then three towards the end of the Championship campaign when I’d joined Rotherham.
“I think it’s helped that earlier this season I was playing further up. I’ve dropped back into a more natural midfield role but I’ve still got the licence to go forward.”
He was happy to be talking about top spot, about playing, about goals, about the ‘normality’ of football.
“We seem to have clicked as a team,” he said. “Anyone who comes into the side knows what they’re doing, and there’s even more competition for places with Josh (Koroma) and Curtis (Tilt) coming in on deadline day.
“The quality for a League One squad is very good. Wins like tonight are very sweet.”
Sinnott, a midfielder with Matlock Town, died after an incident during a night out in Retford which has resulted in two men being charged with manslaughter and one with affray.
He and Crooks, 26, had been inseparable since their days together in the Huddersfield youth set-up while Wood and former Rotherham attacker Danny Ward, now at Cardiff City, were also part of the same social circle.
Out of pain has come purpose and the Millers midfield man is focused on winning promotion in memory of his great friend.
“A million per cent it gives me the drive now that I want to do it for him,” he said.
“Rich wants to do it for his brother. We all want to do it for Rich’s brother. Hopefully the lads will want to do it for Sinn as well.
“It’s been an emotional couple of months for the club. Hopefully that can push us on to new boundaries.”
Crooks pulled out of the clash at Peterborough United late last month when the devastating news that his mate wasn’t going to survive was broken to him on the morning of the match but has started all three subsequent games.
Three days after leaving the team hotel to make a taxi dash to his pal’s hospital bedside he found the strength — the drive — to turn in a commanding performance in a Tuesday-night victory over Ipswich Town.
He was substituted in the second half, physically and emotionally spent, and left the pitch, fighting back tears, to a standing ovation.
On the Monday morning, he’d been close to deciding he was in no fit state for selection.
Then he spoke to Sinn’s mum, Mel, on the phone.
“No,” she told him. “I want you to play. I want you to play.”
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