On the morning of September 11 2001, Brighton & Hove Albion fan Robert Eaton was going about his usual day's work on the 105th floor of the World Trade Centre in New York.
But, as the terrorist-controlled aeroplanes struck, it became clear Robert would never watch his beloved Seagulls again. He wouldn't even make it home. He was one of over 3,000 innocent lives which were lost that tragic day.
Despite living in New York, Robert remained an avid Seagulls fan – using online fans' forum North Stand Chat to keep up to date with all things Albion. Posting under the username Ricky Marlowe's Hairpiece, he was a popular figure among the site’s regulars. Chances are he would have logged on later that day for the latest transfer news, club gossip and irreverent ramblings.
However, as fans here in England saw the drama unfolding through live news broadcasts, thoughts turned away from the Albion to New York...and Robert.
The news filtered back that Robert had been caught in the unprovoked and cowardly attacks. His death hit home with Seagulls fans everywhere and brought a sense of realism to the distant drama being told and retold on breaking news bulletins.
As news of his death spread, friends and fellow supporters were determined the popular Albion fan would not be forgotten.
The Robert Eaton Memorial Fund (REMF) was formed. The principle idea was to hold a charity match and use the money to help fund a junior football club in Robert’s adopted home across the Pond. Later that year the first REMF game took place - a challenge match between Brighton Supporters and Crystal Palace Supporters in front of more than 1,000 fans – with the team of Brighton Supporters losing on penalties. Yes, THAT Crystal Palace. Rivalries were put aside in Robert’s name and thousands of pounds was raised.
That cash helped provide football equipment to Los Peladitos – a youth football team in Queens, New York helping promote societal benefits of playing football, while helping underprivileged Latino children gain soccer scholarships to US universities. And, shortly after the match, a party led by Robert’s parents headed to the Big Apple to see how the money was being spent.
Doug Eaton, Robert’s father, was moved by what he saw being achieved in memory of his son. “They didn't speak English, but while we couldn't communicate we were very pleased to see them” he says. “There's no doubt they were very hard up. You tend to think of Americans as having plenty of money but these were all young families, there simply trying to establish themselves in a new country.”
Since that initial match, the REMF football challenge has become a popular annual fixture on the calendar of many Albion fans. Doug and his wife Laura are regulars at the match, presenting the trophies and taking comfort from the fact Robert’s name is being kept alive in such a fitting way.
It is also fair to say, the success of REMF as a charity has provided some small comfort to the Eatons,“Yes it has helped us cope,” Doug reveals, “because out of something pretty horrible other people have benefited and a little bit of good has come out of it. It doesn’t usually happen like that. From that point of view the whole family is pleased to give support as much as we can.
“To think that out of such a tragedy so much goodness can come is amazing really.”
The REMF has gone on to raise more than £100,000 since that first, hastily arranged, match. Nobody really knew how the charity would develop, how long it would run for nor how much interest there would be in it. Even the most optimistic couldn’t have foreseen how successful it would become.
The annual match is now just one part of the REMF, with an annual golf day, a quiz night, a regular five-a-side tournament and more marathon runners and fundraisers than you could shake a stick at. Even friendly bets among friends end up benefiting the charity.
And, as well as the budding Beckhams of Los Peladitos, the REMF has poured thousands of pounds into youth football closer to home.
The Seagulls Specials club, which works with disabled youngsters, has been given £7,000 to help with their amazing work as well and another eight clubs have benefited from the charity’s fundraising - including junior teams in Croydon in recognition of the vital part played by our new found friends in South London.
Elsewhere, Coaching For Hope – a charity which uses football to support youngsters orphaned by the Aids epidemic in areas like Cambodia – has been given £3,000 while Albion in the Community was recently given a £30,000 mini bus.
The charity continues to go from strength to strength – scooping The Argus newspaper’s Charity of the Year award along the way.
It is now more than ten years since Robert's untimely death. According to the fund’s former chairman Gareth Glover, the first decade has just been the beginning. He said, “The REMF has become a real success story and shows just what can be achieved by football fans when rivalries are put to one side. It would not be possible without the continued support of Crystal Palace fans and the many people who work behind the scenes.
“More than 500 children from New York, Africa, South Africa, Croydon and Sussex have been given the opportunity to play football in memory of Robert. Everyone involved is determined to continue to support good and worthy causes in the local area and beyond. What better way to honour Robert's memory?”
And what would Robert have thought of it all? “It's great,” says Doug Eaton. “It's something I think Rob would have applauded without a doubt.”
So far the REMF has raised tens of thousands for young footballers, crossed footballing rivalries and seen the charity establish itself as one of the most positive aspects of Brighton & Hove Albion.
Long may it continue.