THE first thing he sees when he wakes up is a picture of his best friend.
It’s 12 months since Matt Crooks lost Jordan Sinnott but there’s a daily reminder that even though the pair were parted in tragic circumstances a year ago they will always be together.
The image on the Rotherham United midfielder’s bedroom wall shows ‘Sin’ with Crooks’ baby boy, Eliás.
It was put there on the January day Sinnott died, aged 25, after being the victim of an assault the evening before.
Twelve months on, Crooks, who has thrown himself into establishing the Jordan Sinnott Foundation, a charitable trust designed to help young people in sport, still isn’t sure how he feels.
“Me and Sin, it’s forever, Mate. It really is,” he says. “I’ve had most of my adult life with him and most of my best times have been with him. I could never imagine my life without him being in it.
“Even though he’s not here ... obviously I’ve got the charity now and stuff. I’ll just try to keep him alive however I can.
“I don’t know if it will ever sink in. When I think about it, it still doesn’t feel real. I don’t know how long that will last for. When I see news pieces about it, to me it’s not like I’m looking at my best mate, it’s like I’m looking at a famous person.
“It’s strange. Maybe it’s because it’s been made into such a big thing. He was just my best pal. It’s kind of hard to explain.”
Crooks, who turns 27 later this month, and Sinnott formed their first bonds as they came through the youth ranks at Huddersfield Town and the Millers man’s West Yorkshire upbringing is plain in his accent:
“Pretty much straight after it happened I said to my missus: ‘I’m going to have to do summat to carry his name on.’
“As the year has gone on, I dunno ... I’ll have days where I might not think about it straightaway. The first two or three months, it was just there at the forefront of my thoughts every day.
“Sometimes now ... “ He takes a deep breath. “Sometimes now ... I’ve got another little one coming and sometimes life takes over. Then you have those guilty moments where you think: ‘I’ve not thought about Sin today.’
“I guess that’s the grieving process. It’s hard. I remember the first days coming to training. The lads were laughing and joking and I used to get angry.
“It’s no reflection on them. Obviously, their lives are going on as normal, but your life is completely shattered. The lads were brilliant with me, to be fair. It’s a weird set of emotions you go through.”
We’re talking on Zoom towards the end of 2020. He is wearing casual grey, his hair, as always, isn’t quite doing what it’s told and he’s enthused that the first batch of ‘Sinnott 25’ shirts — 900 were sent in by football and other sports clubs in the aftermath of that devastating night in Retford — have been shipped to needy youngsters in Malawi.
The foundation, which rose out of the shirts appeal and has already raised more than £30,000, has helped Crooks cope. “Yeah, a million per cent it has,” says the player who can now smile at the memory of his great mate.
But not always.
“It depends what day you catch me on,” he says. “Some days, like today, I’m all right talking about stuff but some days I’m useless and just crumble.
“I’ve definitely changed since it happened. My outlook on life is a lot different. That’s a daily thing as well. It depends what mood I’m in. If I’m being really positive it’s, like, live every day as your last.
“But I’ll have the odd day when all I think is how fragile life is and what’s the point of it when it can be just taken away from you like that and you’re gone.
“Most of the time I’m a lot more positive than that. I think of the charity and the stuff I’ve got to do with that.”
He has total recall of events before and after he learned of his friend’s plight.
The Rotherham players were dining at their hotel on Saturday morning before facing Peterborough United that afternoon. His phone rang, it was partner Ashleigh and he sensed trouble. His initial thought was it was another burglary after the couple’s Barnsley home had been broken into a few weeks earlier.
“Are you sitting down?” was the first thing Ashleigh said to him.
“It’s all so clear in my head,” he says. “Me, Icky (Michael Ihiekwe), Dan (Barlaser) and Smudge (Michael Smith), we usually sit together and talk nonsense. But for some reason we’d had a deep conversation about life and death. Then what happened happened.
“It’s mad how it’s like a movie in my head. I can remember what my hotel room looked like. I remember what I was watching on Netflix the night before the game. Everything is pristinely clear in my mind.
“I was down at breakfast with Woodson (his nickname for Richard Wood). Baz (Joe Mattock) was opposite me but to the left. I remember Trev (Clarke) being to the left of me as well.
“Ash just said that Sin was in hospital. I could tell by the tone of her voice that it wasn’t great. I was upset, but I didn’t know how bad it was.”
He called another of the old Huddersfield youth clan, Danny Ward, a former Rotherham player.
Around 900 Sinnott 25 shirts were donated
“I asked Wardy how bad it was,” Crooks says. “He said: ‘I’m on my way to the hospital now so I’ll let you know.’
“Me and Woody walked to a coffee shop nearby. Woody knew Sin as well. I explained to him what had happened. Wardy rang me about ten minutes later and said: ‘It’s not looking good.’ I just got a cab from Peterborough to the hospital in Sheffield. I got there and ...”
What he went through from there he’s not ready to share.
He perks up at mention of the picture. “I’ll show yer,” he says, turning his phone round and treating me to a whistle-stop tour of a bedroom far tidier than his hairstyle before arriving at his destination.
There’s a big photo of Crooks and his son and tucked into the side of it is a snapshot — much smaller but with just as much meaning.
“It’s there, look,” he says. “That’s me and Eliás and there’s Eliás and Sin. It was the first thing I did when I got home from the hospital.
“That’s another thing that has changed in me. You know when you’re out at social events and people are taking pictures and filming videos all the time? I used to hate that. I used to just be in the moment.
“But thinking about the amount of time we used to spend together, I wish we’d taken more photos and videos so I could look back on them. You never know what is going to happen.”
Shortly after the funeral, Sinnott’s girlfriend discovered she was pregnant and nowadays Crooks and Ashleigh watch out for Kelly and little Maisie.
“Sin, Kelly, Ash and me, we became good friends as a four,” he says. “We went on holiday together to Majorca.
“Ash has known him ever since she’s known me so that’s five and a half years. She has no objections to a picture of him being in our bedroom!
“I see a lot of his family. Pretty much every week I’ll speak to his mum, Mel, and I see Kelly all the time. Something that is big for us as a family is making sure she and Maisie are looked after. We’ll always be there for them.”
A number-25 shirt that didn’t find its way to Malawi is the Millers one Crooks is wearing this season.
“It means a lot,” he says. “We did our talks that the gaffer has us do in front of the group — who are you playing for this year? Mine was obviously Sin. I explained to the new lads who didn’t really know much about it.
“Well, I tried to,” he adds, laughing at himself in the right kind of way. “I just started crying. Like I said, it depends on what day you catch me on!
“I said I wanted to have a good season in this shirt number. It’s been a strange one so far because of coronavirus but hopefully I can do my bit for him.”
Crooks’ first match back last year came just three days after Peterborough when, drained by grief but fuelled by the desire to honour his pal’s name, he gave one of the individual performances of the season.
He lasted 72 minutes of a 1-0 Tuesday-night win over Ipswich Town at AESSEAL New York Stadium before departing, physically and emotionally spent, to a standing ovation.
“About 50 of us had met up on the Sunday and I didn’t get home from the pub in Huddersfield until about 2am Monday morning,” he says.
“I was certain I wasn’t going to play. I was like: ‘It’s just not the right thing to do.’ I rang Mel on the way to training just to see how she was. I told her I was just going to turn up and then shoot off home.
“She said: ‘Have you not got a game tomorrow?’ I told her we had but that I wasn’t going to play and she said: ‘No.’
“Ian, his step-dad, came on the phone as well and said: ‘You’ve got to play. He’d want you to play.’ I said that, as long as the gaffer was okay with it, I’d be up for selection.
“Somehow I managed to get through 70-odd minutes. I remember the whole of the Saturday but I remember nothing about the Ipswich game.”
It’s been a difficult interview for him but one he’s been keen to take on. Several times he struggles for the phrase he wants before suddenly expressing himself with almost-poetic simplicity.
“With the charity, I have days when I want it to be massive,” he says. “I feel like I can make it into a multi-million-pound charity that helps thousands of people all over the world.
“I have these moments ... some people might call me far-fetched but I feel l can make it into ... I want it to ... I can’t find the words for it ...” There’s a long pause.
“His character and the way he was and the personality he was, I want it to be as big as that.”
A short while after we’ve said our goodbyes, my phone pings and Crooks’ name flashes up on screen.
“Thanks,” his text reads. “For allowing me to speak about him how I wanted.”
At the next match following our conversation I wander past the players’ cars at New York. Crooks has a black Audi but so do a few of his teammates and I find myself wondering which one is his.
Then I spot it.
There’s a sticker in the back window. One name, one number. One best friend.
Matt on the Jordan Sinnott Foundation
“We got a group together who were interested in starting something. After the shirts appeal was so successful we wanted to keep up the momentum.
“Covid made it a struggle trying to keep it going but it also gave us time to sit down and reflect and think how we could help people in his name. What would Sin have wanted?
“Sport was such a big part of his life — not just football, all sports in general — and we wanted the charity to reflect his character. The charity mission statement is the perfect summary of him as a person really: helping people through sport.
“We’ve organised a ball — we don’t know if it’s going to go ahead yet — in June. The tickets haven’t been released yet but that’s the next thing I’m getting on with.”
Matt on where the money will go
“People can apply for funding. It’s for ages between five and 21 and for individuals or teams who need funding for sports-related activity.
“They’re more than welcome to apply and we can give them grants and money towards maybe a school trip their parents can’t afford.
“I’ve spoken to the Academy manager at Rotherham. I remember when I was a kid and joined up with the Huddersfield first team from the youth team for the first time.
“My dad couldn’t afford to get me boots so I had a pair where the sole of the boot was miles apart from the boot itself. I had a black boot with white tape wrapped round it!
“If anyone is in that kind of situation our charity can help them. We’re looking at helping the homeless too.”
Matt on what the foundation means to him
“At the very start, the shirts ... it kind of made me forget what had happened. I kind of lost touch with what had happened and was just focused on getting shirts. It was just something to take my mind away from it, I guess.
“The charity now, it’s not making me forget but it’s giving me something to strive towards for Sin — something positive rather than being negative about it.
“The shirts going out on Christmas Eve, that was really, really special, something that I’ll treasure forever. That was only the first 70. We’ve got so many more to go.
“I was speaking to the guy from Kit Aid. We’re hoping to reach further afield. We have contacts in Brazil and Samoa. They’re going to go around the world. It’s going to be big.
“From when we started collecting the shirts, it’s gone way past what we ever expected.”
Support the Jordan Sinnott foundation online at www.js25.co.uk