The funeral of Bradley Lowery, one of the iconic faces of last season’s Premier League season as the devoted Sunderland fan battled a rare form of cancer, drew crowds of mourners onto the streets on Friday.
Lowery died last Friday aged just six of neuroblastoma, and his parents will wear football shirts to the service to honour his love of the sport.
England striker Jermain Defoe, who formed a special attachment with Lowery during his time at Sunderland, flew back from his new club Bournemouth’s training camp in Spain to attend the funeral of his “best mate”.
Defoe had been devastated by Lowery’s death but posted a moving tribute to him the day after he died. “Sleep tight little one….” he wrote on Twitter alongside a blue heart emoji.
He went on to write the youngster’s “courage and bravery will inspire me for the rest of my life”.
Balloons and tributes adorned the roads leading to the church where the service is taking place, in the village of Blackhall Colliery in the north-east of England.
Hundreds of tributes were also on view outside Sunderland’s Stadium of Light.
The funeral service will be followed by a private crematorium ceremony.
Speakers will broadcast the funeral service to people unable to be accommodated within the church.
Football players and clubs from across the world also posted tributes online to the youngster as his family prepared to say goodbye.
Manchester City and England women’s footballer Jill Scott tweeted: “All thoughts will be with Bradley and his family today, Rest in Peace little man xxx”.
‘We’ll never forget your courage’
Spanish club Villareal posted: “Forever Bradley Lowery. We’ll never forget your courage. Rest in peace dear fighter.”
And London’s Queen’s Park Rangers wrote: “Rest in peace, brave Bradley”.
Hundreds of fans from all across the United Kingdom took up the advice of Bradley’s parents and donned their favoured club’s strip if they were unable to attend the public service in the village near Sunderland.
A vigil and minute’s applause are planned in Newcastle city centre at the same time as the funeral, while balloons will be released at noon (1100GMT) at Sunderland’s ground.
Lowery was first diagnosed with the cancer when he was just 18 months old and his courageous battle was exposed to a wider audience at the beginning of last season.
At the Premier League game between Everton and Sunderland his name was chanted by both sets of fans in the fifth minute — as he was then five — and Everton then donated generously to the fund for his proposed treatment in the United States.
The funds raised will now be placed in a foundation in his name, according to Sunderland.
Despite his failing health his spirit and resilience were remarkable and he went on to jointly win the BBC Premier League goal of the month competition in December — converting a penalty past Chelsea reserve goalkeeper Asmir Begovic at half-time of their game.
He subsequently received 250,000 Christmas cards.
Defoe was a regular visitor to his home and he and Lowery were given the honour of being listed on the race card for the world’s most famous steeplechase, the Grand National, in April this year.
The race organisers allocated them number 41 on the card — 40 are legally allowed to race — with the youngster listed as the jockey and Defoe as the trainer, and naturally the silks (colours) were the red and white stripes of Sunderland.
Sadly things by that stage had deteriorated further with a new tumour detected at the base of his spine.
By the time his sixth birthday had come round last month Lowery was back in hospital but Defoe celebrated it with him once he was discharged.