AS the banging on the door got louder and he stirred to his senses, Tony James knew something was wrong.
Moments earlier he’d been sound asleep in a hotel between Southport and Boston, conked out at 10.30pm as Newport County’s schedule had become so frantic they couldn’t even return home between away games. But with that bang on the door, everything changed. James woke from his dreams to a nightmare.
The knock was from skipper David Pipe. The reason was that James needed to urgently call his wife who had been forced to take to social media in an effort to track down her husband.
And the news was shattering.
James’ father had died.
“It was a strange week to begin with as we were away for not just one but two games, the Tuesday in Southport and then Gateshead in Boston on the Thursday,” said James, who is from Cwmbran.
“This was on the Wednesday night and I was rooming with Byron Anthony and I was so tired I’d gone to sleep and turned off my phone by about 10pm.
“We’d had a good result on the Tuesday and I was trying to get ready for the game on Thursday.
“My wife was trying desperately to get hold of me but obviously it was going straight to voicemail. I woke up to a bang on the door from Pipey and he told me I needed to call home. At that moment, everything goes through your mind, but you are obviously incredibly worried.
“I called home and she told me about my dad straight away.”
James’ father, Malcolm, 69, had shown no sign of ill health as his son departed for a tough week on the road. They had last seen each other on the previous Friday.
In a tweet sent on the day of the game with Gateshead, James perfectly encapsulates the situation he found himself in.
“Could I possibly be further away from home at a time like this?”
Simple, emotive and not fussy, very Tony James.
Indeed, such was James’ professionalism, many of his fellow squad members didn’t even know of his tragedy, the news confined to an inner circle.
“I knew pretty much straight away I would stay on with the team and play on the Thursday night, it’s what my dad would’ve wanted,” he explained.
“Personally, I think being busy and pre-occupied with the game helped me, I spoke to my brother and I knew there was very little I could do at the time.
“But I think I did a good job of handling it, a lot of the boys didn’t even know.”
James was the Argus star man at Boston and how the situation was handled in County’s home game with Dartford was left up to the former Hereford man.
“The gaffer came to me and put it in my hands, he asked if I’d prefer to do something at the game or keep it in house and I decided it would be nice to celebrate my dad, because he loved coming to games.”
The result was a minute’s applause with the James family stood side-by-side with the players as Rodney Parade paid their respects.
“It was very emotional, it was a nice thing for me and the family, I am glad we decided to do it,” said James.
“But I knew in that game it was all taking a toll. I went off before the end with a slight muscle pull, and with everything that was happening, I told the boss I thought it best I didn’t start on Monday.”
But James is ready and available for the run-in to County’s fantastic season and knows the perfect ending to what has been such a difficult time for his family.
“It’s promotion, of course, that’s the ideal ending, it’d be brilliant,” he said.
“The playoffs are a lottery but if it goes that way we have nothing to fear.”
And James certainly has nothing to fear from what is ultimately only a game.
No football fan in the country would question his courage or professionalism.