‘I’ll remember this for ever’: Exeter’s Jay Stansfield honours his late father

This Saturday, 10 September, would have been Adam Stansfield’s 44th birthday. Stansfield died of bowel cancer aged 31 while contracted to Exeter City but he never feels too far away. Exeter renamed a stand at St James Park in his honour and in a thoroughfare at the club’s Cliff Hill training base there is something of a shrine to the former striker: a “Stansfield 9” red-and-white-striped home shirt on a bust above a pair of his boots, beside pictures, a programme, team sheets and shirts from his three professional clubs: Yeovil, Hereford and Exeter. Since his tragic passing, Exeter staff do not recall a game where supporters have not proudly sung Stansfield’s name.

These days they have another Stansfield to cheer and cherish. Stansfield’s name and legacy lives on through the Adam Stansfield Foundation and in the game via his eldest son, Jay, also a striker, who last week rejoined his boyhood club on loan from Fulham whom he signed for as a 16-year-old. His new manager, Matt Taylor, played alongside Jay’s dad for three years at Exeter, who saw fit to bring the No 9 shirt out of retirement for Jay to wear. The transfer announcement video went viral, attracting more than 3.2m views. Jay is still wading through messages of support from all over the world. “My phone kept pinging,” the 19-year-old says. “It is polite to reply and say thank you.”

His debut last weekend inevitably stirred memories and afterwards a tearful Jay applauded fans looking on from the stand named after his father. His family were boardroom guests. “It was emotional,” Jay says. “It hit me when I got out of my car with my two brothers. The next thing I hear is people singing as I’m walking into the ground. All they were singing was: ‘Sing a song for Stanno.’ To drive in and be able to hear them and see people waiting [for me], it set the tone for the day. It was crazy. I knew it was a big thing, coming back and taking the No 9 shirt but I really didn’t think it would blow up as much as it has.”

He has moved home with his mother, Marie, stepdad, Oran, and his younger brothers, Taylor and Cody, both of whom play football, the former for Elmore, for whom Adam played, the latter for Twyford Spartans, Jay’s first club for whom his dad also played. “I’ve got a funny story,” Jay says, smiling. “There was a five-a-side tournament at Twyford, the last one with my mates, probably three weeks after I went on trial at Fulham. My whole family were telling me not to play in case I got injured but I told a little porkie and said that I was going down to watch and help manage. I ended up playing and we won the tournament. I didn’t think of it but my uncle was down there watching my cousin and my brothers. My grandad was there too. They walked over, saw me playing and rang my mum straight away. My mum went crazy at me. I wouldn’t do it again.”

Jay Stansfield in front of the Adam Stansfield Stand at Exeter City.
Jay Stansfield playing in front of the Adam Stansfield Stand at Exeter City. Photograph: Tom Sandberg/PPAUK/Shutterstock

Jay made his Premier League debut at Wolves last month and his first top-flight start a week later in the victory against Brentford. “They say I got an assist … I hit the crossbar, it bounced down to Bobby [Decordova-Reid] and he scored but I’ll take it,” Jay smiles. But at 10.30pm on deadline day he was putting the finishing touches to a homecoming. “I was thinking: ‘Do I take the No 9 shirt, do I not?’ Do I want to live in his footsteps or create a story for myself?’ But whatever number I took I knew I would be living in a shadow and the pressure would always be on me. Even if I’ve got ‘Stansfield’ and No 9 on my back, I’m me for who I am and that won’t change. I thought it would be a nice touch if I did take the No 9. To be able to wear it and run in front of that stand means so much to me and it’s something I’ll remember for ever.”

When Jay stepped off the bench against MK Dons for his debut emotions were raw. Adam’s brother-in-law, Shaun Parkin, his voice cracking, says: “When the fans sing the ‘Stanno’ song, ‘We’ll never let you go’ when Jay ran on … and they were all chanting his name … it brings it all back. ‘Stanno, Stanno, Stanno.’ It is magical, it’s strange, it’s weird. It was quite choking, really. Adam would be laughing his socks off at what is going on down here. He would love what has happened to Jay but all these people singing songs about him 12 years after his passing.” Parkin’s voice goes again. “People raising money in his name; his sister [Andrea] jumping out of an aeroplane, Roger, his dad, running his first half-marathon at, I think, 65 with Andrea … it is very special.”

Tributes left by Exeter fans on a terrace, 12 years after Adam Stansfield’s death from bowel cancer.
Tributes left by Exeter fans on a terrace, 12 years after Adam Stansfield’s death from bowel cancer. Photograph: Steven Paston/Action Images/Reuters

Jay has another shirt to frame and add to his collection. He has his dad’s shirts on the wall of his hallway alongside his own at home in London but stumbled on another treasure at home in Tiverton. “When it was lockdown I was out in the garden playing with my brothers and I found a pair of boots under the bed,” Jay says. “They were old [Nike] Tiempo 90s. I asked Mum: ‘Can I wear them?’ I went out in the garden and wore them and in my head I was going to wear them in the next game. I thought it would be a nice touch but they didn’t last, the bottom fell off. I’ve got a lot of his boots in glass boxes. It is nice to have things around. Mum gave me his watch to wear to prom when I finished school. I like looking at photos but obviously it makes me upset, and I don’t always want to be upset. There are positives in life that I can take from it. I try to be as strong as possible and look like I’m OK when sometimes I’m not.”

Jay remembers watching his father play at Wembley in 2008, when Rob Edwards scored for Exeter to seal promotion to the Football League, and in years gone by he trawled YouTube for clips of his dad in action. “I get a bit emotional if I hear his name from the commentators or things like that so I try to keep level-headed and not look or talk about him too much,” he says. “My mum was telling me a story about when he didn’t have a clue that he was going to start but he turned up and scored the winner against Oxford. I’ve sat and watched that game back.”

A replica of Adam Stansfield’s shirt at the club’s training ground.
A replica of Adam Stansfield’s shirt at the club’s training ground. Photograph: Ben Fisher

Father and son share many traits: from their gait (“I always run with my hands in and with my thumb up, something he used to do as well”) to their work ethic and, of course, their appetite for goals (Jay scored four hat-tricks in three games for Fulham’s Under-18s). “When he ran down the wing the first time, oh my God, it was deja vu,” says Exeter’s longstanding chairman, Julian Tagg. Jay has adopted Adam’s pre-match meal – a ham and cheese omelette – but given he is teetotal not another ritual his dad kept from his days in non-league. Steve Tully, Adam’s roommate on trips with Exeter, recalls the familiar knock at the door when room service would deliver a pint of Stella Artois after the 9pm team curfew. “Sometimes we’d ask them to put it under a cover or put a coke with it,” Tully says. “We’d find a way. He’d say: ‘It makes me sleep, and then I’ll be able to run all day tomorrow.’ Within half an hour he’d be sound asleep snoring.”

Paul Tisdale, the former Exeter manager, enlisted a psychiatrist to help the team cope with the tragedy. Adam is sorely missed. “You know when a friend’s not there because the phone stops ringing,” says Tully, who briefly coached Jay as an under-16 at Exeter. “He wanted to be a physio and I remember him reading his books, learning the science, body parts – sometimes I had to test him – and I had aspirations to be a coach. He was saying: ‘Well, you want to be a manager, I’m a physio …’ We had these visions about what we wanted to do when we retired. When I see Jay on the pitch I just think: ‘We should be watching that game together, having a beer, laughing and joking.’”

At Yeovil’s Huish Park a picture of Adam sits in their garden of remembrance. Adam’s former teammates remain shocked by his loss and stunned by his workrate. “To this day he is the most unselfish player I’ve ever played with,” says Liam Sercombe. “You could play a poor pass to him but somehow he would end up making it look like a ‘worldie’ pass.” Sercombe remembers Adam joining Exeter on their pre-season trip to Saunton Sands about a month before his passing and helping his team win points at a quiz night. He recalls the thousands that lined the streets and gathered outside Exeter Cathedral on the day of Adam’s funeral, when Tisdale described him as “the engine to our train”. “He loved being around the boys,” Sercombe says. “When I saw Jay’s interview the other day, it brought a tear to the eye.”

source: theguardian.com