'I wish you could have seen him afterwards' - how Leeds United made wish come true for 13-year-old cancer patient

Leeds United hadn't even kicked off against Arsenal before 13-year-old fanatic Elliot Metcalfe was charging around his living room celebrating.

By Graham Smyth
Monday, 23rd November 2020, 5:03 pm

Elliot made Whites history by becoming the club's first virtual mascot and his story made Whites everywhere tear up as they watched club captain Liam Cooper carry the youngster out onto the Elland Road pitch with him, via the magic of Zoom and an iPad.

In 2018 the Fitzwilliam teenager was diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma, a soft tissue cancer.

"We first noticed in June he had a slight swelling on the side of his face, which grew quite quickly," said mum Sophie.

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"By early August he started chemotherapy at LGI. They were looking at all the different treatments and there was a bit of uncertainty about where he'd have radiotherapy done. The Christie Centre at Manchester wasn't open, there was a few delays, but the best treatment out there was something called photon beam therapy. Because his tumour is in his head and his neck and goes up to his brain, that's the best treatment because it's precise and doesn't go into the rest of his body.

"The NHS sent us to Jacksonville in Florida for the photon beam therapy and he had the really intense one, the pencil beam. We went out there for three months while he carried on chemotherapy and radiotherapy at the same time. That was October to December 2018. He had about a year's worth of treatment in the end."

In the midst of his treatment, Elliot was given a boost with a get well card from his favourite football team, Leeds United. It was signed by boss Marcelo Bielsa and all the players and put a huge smile on the face of a young man going through the toughest of times.

"His grandpa supports Leeds, my uncle, my cousins, it's just always been a family thing, there's no other team," said Sophie.

HISTORY MADE - Elliot Metcalfe became Leeds United's first ever virtual mascot as Liam Cooper carried him out onto the pitch via an iPad and a Zoom call for the game against Arsenal. Pic: Getty

"He was about five or six when he started getting interested and watching it, then started playing for a local team. My husband Jonathan isn't really into football but because of Elliot, that got him more interest and they started going together to matches. Elliot is really into everything about it, he knows all the stats, he's a little statto actually. He looks at the team selection, he looks out on social media for the buzz about new players and Bielsa."

While he was being treated at Leeds General, a Clic Sargent social worker brought the Make-a-Wish Foundation to the family's attention. The charity grants wishes to children and young people fighting life-threatening conditions and Elliot was encouraged to start thinking about what he might like to do, but travelling to America and the intensity of his treatment forced the idea onto the backburner.

Once they returned to Yorkshire, the direction Elliot wanted to take for his wish request became quickly and abundantly clear.

"When we used to travel home from Leeds after he'd been in, we would pass Elland Road and Elliot used to say 'I hope I get to go there again one day'," said Sophie.

BIG MOMENT - Elliot Metcalfe and sister Verity preparing to Zoom the Leeds United team ahead of kick-off at Elland Road.

"So we started the ball rolling with Make-a-Wish. He had to do a mood board, he put Leeds United on, his gaming and the things he's interested in but he wanted to do something with the club. At first it was going to be in person, doing a tour, but then COVID hit and they said it wasn't looking possible to do his wish."

Football has had to adapt so many of its ways since the pandemic began, with games played in empty stadiums, rigorous testing protocols and press conferences conducted over Zoom. Leeds saw an opportunity to use that same technology to make Elliot's dream come true.

"We were asked if we would be up for the idea of doing something virtually," said Sophie.

"We didn't know when fans would be back in stadiums so we thought why not? Leeds United were brilliant. They sent him some video messages the night before, from the team hotel and they sent him a goody bag and a shirt he didn't have."

TREATMENT - Leeds United fan Elliot Metcalfe spent three months in America being treated for a soft tissue cancer.

And so Elliot, flanked by sister Verity, both dressed in their Leeds shirts, sat down on the sofa in front of a laptop, perched atop an upturned basket, as Cooper took hold of an iPad in the Elland Road tunnel on Sunday evening. At one end of the call, the pre-match nerves were jangling.

"He was really nervous, I was really nervous as well," said Sophie.

"Elliot was really quiet leading up to it and worried he wouldn't say the right thing. I think he was frightened the technology wouldn't work perhaps or his sister would butt in or something. When he was talking to the guy who works for Leeds before he passed it to Liam he was saying he was so nervous. But once Liam came on it was quite nice and relaxed.

"I thought they'd maybe need to get into the zone before the match but Liam was lovely, they really put him at ease and he felt as though he was there with them."

Luke Ayling grinned into the screen, Elliot's favourite player Kalvin Phillips waved theatrically and a smiling Illan Meslier popped his head in, before Cooper pointed the iPad pitchward and led the team out to play the Gunners. The stadium's big screen showed Elliot and Verity and what they were seeing. When the call ended, Elliot's delight took over.

"I wish you could have seen him afterwards because when the call ended he was just running round the room for ages," said Sophie.

"It was 'oh my God, oh my God' and that excitement just bubbled up. He thought it was absolutely brilliant. I think it surpassed his expectations. And he thought getting a draw against Arsenal was fantastic, but Leeds were so much better and could have had three points."

The Make-a-Wish Foundation UK had just under 1,800 wishes on hold due to the pandemic and lockdown restrictions but can now put a big tick beside this one.

Joanne Porter from Make-a-Wish UK told the YEP: "To see this granted in such an imaginative way is fantastic. We always try to ensure wishes have a magical extra element to them and Leeds were absolutely brilliant. We know through our research that to have positive memories like this is a real boost for a young person who has had tough times and has lots of miserable or painful memories."

The Ackworth School student had to go to school today, before he had the chance to watch himself on last night's Match of the Day 2. According to his mum he's currently doing well, all things considered and the family take hope from a relatively stable past year.

"He's still under LGI oncology and he goes every three months for MRIs," she said.

"They just assess the tumour and at the moment the best we can hope for is having a stable result, that there's no growth. He's had a year's worth of stable scans, so it's really positive. A lot that relapse do within the first 12 months so it was a bit of a magic number for us. We wanted to pass that 12 month period and long may it continue."

Football and Leeds United provide a welcome distraction from life's challenges at the best of times but in 2020 the sport and the club have taken on added importance. For Elliot and his family that is especially true and even had the Whites ended last night's game on the losing side, they were always going to be big winners in one household.

"Although he's finished the main treatment now, he's got problems because of the treatment he has had, with his eyes, his ears, everything really," said Sophie.

"So to focus on something other than treatment and hospital visits and for him to focus on something that's going really well, getting into the Premier League, is fantastic.

"He used to say he wished to see Leeds on Match of the Day and my dad texted me this morning to say he was on it. Elliot couldn't believe it. He's so excited to see it."