'The match that should have been called off killed my father': The last time Atletico Madrid visited Anfield, Covid was taking hold but football ploughed on... with heartbreaking results - SPECIAL REPORT

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It was all one big joke to Atletico Madrid's Diego Costa, who pretended to cough on journalists as he walked past them on the way out of Anfield that night.

But time would show that it was no laughing matter and that, even by his standards, Costa's actions were particularly despicable.

Liverpool's last home game against Atletico Madrid, which took place against the gathering storm of Covid last year, should never have been played at all.

The morning newspapers that day — Wednesday, March 11 2020 — revealed the escalating scale of the crisis. LaLiga had decided on the Tuesday to put every game behind closed doors.

Madrid side Getafe had given up waiting for UEFA to make a decision about European football and refused to travel to Italy to face Inter Milan in the Europa League.

'We are not travelling. If we have to lose the tie we will,' said their president Angel Torres.

Liverpool's clash with Atletico Madrid evokes memories of their costly meeting in March 2020

Liverpool's clash with Atletico Madrid evokes memories of their costly meeting in March 2020

Liverpool's clash with Atletico Madrid evokes memories of their costly meeting in March 2020 

Madrid had become a centre of the pandemic, with El Pais reporting 55 deaths and 22,000 confirmed cases across Spain by the night of the match. Schools were shut in Madrid, streets deserted, restaurants and bars empty.

English football's approach, directed by Government advice, was 'keep calm and carry on'. It looked increasingly out of step.

A former director of public health for North West England, John Ashton, flew into Heathrow at 6.50am that morning on an overnight flight from Bahrain, where he had been asked to advise on the country's response to Covid. By the time his 8am connecting shuttle to Manchester had landed, he had decided that using his Liverpool season ticket to attend the Atletico game would be madness.

'It was reading the newspapers that made my mind up,' he says. 'I was thinking, "This is mad".'

Ashton's decision meant that he was free to accept a request to discuss the Government's response to Covid, on the BBC's Newsnight programme that night.

Ordinary Liverpool fans did not have Ashton's knowledge. Richie Mawson and his son Jamie spoke three times by phone that day, weighing up whether it was safe to attend.

Richie asked: 'Do you think it's right, Spanish fans coming in?'

Liverpool FC knew that fans were worried about this. The Six Dreams documentary series, charting Atletico's 2019-20 season, captures Liverpool's secretary Danny Stanway in conversation with Atletico team director Fernando Fariza on the eve of the game.

Fariza tells Stanway that many fans had been calling to ask if they should take the flight to Liverpool or not. Stanway says that he has been fielding calls from locals asking how many Spanish fans would be arriving in the city.

But Richie had been watching Liverpool for 63 years and considered the European nights under lights better than any. He was a healthy 70-year-old who was in the gym twice a week.

The Reds hosted their Spanish rivals at Anfield in March 2020 as Covid was on the rampage

The Reds hosted their Spanish rivals at Anfield in March 2020 as Covid was on the rampage 

Despite Spanish authorities advising fans not to travel, Atletico Madrid fans were allowed to attend the Champions League contest

Despite Spanish authorities advising fans not to travel, Atletico Madrid fans were allowed to attend the Champions League contest

Without any strong advice to the contrary, he did what he always did, setting out on the 15-minute walk from his home in Liverpool's Kirkdale, across Stanley Park, through the away fan concourse where hundreds of the 3,000 Spanish contingent were already gathering by 6.30pm, and into the ground.

The Spanish government had actually asked Atletico to advise their supporters not to travel. But UEFA had not cancelled the game, the British Government had neither asked them to nor imposed restrictions on arriving Spanish fans.

Pitchside at Anfield, Atletico's head of communications Juan Jose Anaut drew up a statement that acknowledged government advice, but also confirmed UEFA's decision for the game to go ahead.

Liverpool felt that deciding not to play the game could have resulted in sanctions or even their disqualification from the Champions League. The club's position was that the game was run and 'owned' by UEFA, who were taking the safety advice from the UK Government.

Richie was familiar to many of the club's fans. Though he had worked all his life on the railways, his real calling was as an organiser and fundraiser for the horseracing club that he ran at the Barlow Arms pub, a short walk from Anfield.

A documentary also revealed that Spanish and English fans expressed concerns about the tie

A documentary also revealed that Spanish and English fans expressed concerns about the tie

It wasn't an easy job, collecting cash from up to 60 members which was pooled to pay for annual trips to the races as far afield as Leopardstown and Newquay. Members didn't have all or any of the cash when it was collection night, on Fridays, so he staged events to raise funds.

Steve McManaman's father, Dave, was a neighbour and member of the club and Mawson managed to get players to turn up to draw the raffle.

'He was so good at it,' his son remembers. 'He'd get them little gifts to thank them, which encouraged them to come again. John Barnes was brilliant. He became someone Dad knew well.'

Liverpool had brought some incredible highs. Such as the trip to the 1981 European Cup final in Paris that Richie, wife Mary and Jamie made by train and ferry, savouring every moment despite the fact that the hostel Richie had booked turned out to be dubious. The family's room was broken into and their money stolen.

An unimaginable low. Richie and Jamie were in the Upper Leppings Lane stand on the day of the Hillsborough disaster, watching the tragedy unfold below them. The two briefly became separated on the way into that game, shortly before the gates were opened and fans surged in. 'Dad was screaming for me,' says Jamie. 'When he saw me, he just hugged me and led me to the upper tier.'

The performance against Atletico was better than the 3-2 losing scoreline, which saw Liverpool eliminated, had suggested. Richie felt the team had played well and would have won without a freak error from goalkeeper Adrian.

While fans rubbed shoulders through the city, Covid was spreading and infections rising

While fans rubbed shoulders through the city, Covid was spreading and infections rising

He called Jamie for their usual post-match debrief and was in good spirits when he called into the Barlow Arms, for his usual post-match pint of lager.

As he sat in the pub, Ashton was appearing on Newsnight. 'I'm tearing my hair out really with this,' he told interviewer Emily Maitlis. 'You've got 3,000 supporters in town, staying overnight in Liverpool, drinking in the bars, and a proportion of those will be corona-positive. We will now have people being infected tonight in Liverpool because of that.'

Jamie says his father started to develop flu-like symptoms a few days after the game. 'The doctor said, "It doesn't look like Covid. I'll give him antibiotics for a heavy cold",' recalls Jamie.

But by April 2, he was finding it such a struggle to breathe that he was admitted to Aintree University Hospital. The ambulance crew put him on oxygen and were ready to stretcher him out, though he was determined to walk out, holding the oxygen canister. Mary gave him a £10 note. 'That's to get a taxi back,' she said. It would be the last the family saw of him.

When Richie phoned his son the following afternoon, their conversation was brief. 'I'll have to go,' he told him. 'I can't breathe.'

Jamie hid his anxiety. 'It's fine Dad, leave it,' he said. 'We'll phone you back.'

Jamie Mawson's (pictured) father Richie was one fan that contracted Covid and died later

Jamie Mawson's (pictured) father Richie was one fan that contracted Covid and died later

Ritchie was a fit and healthy 70-year-old and was hospitalised shortly after the match

Ritchie was a fit and healthy 70-year-old and was hospitalised shortly after the match

When he called back the following day, Richie was on a ventilator and would remain so for more than two weeks. The family's last sight of him was a video call on an iPad of one of his nurses. He was unconscious when she turned the screen around for them to see him.

'We were shouting and shouting to wake him up,' says Jamie. 'It looked like he had already died.'

A nurse promised to hold his hand through the night. Richie died at about 3am.

As Liverpool prepare to face Atletico once more on Wednesday, there is a distinct reluctance from those in authority to speak about the decision to stage the game. Sportsmail's attempts to speak to Liverpool council's director of public health, Matt Ashton, son of John Ashton, met with an immediate refusal from Liverpool City Council.

Parts of the council are currently under the control of Government commissioners, sent in after an emergency inspection had found a 'serious breakdown of governance'. Sportsmail was told that it would be inappropriate for anyone from the council to discuss an issue which might point to Government blame at such a time.

The families of coronavirus victims from the Anfield game are now calling for answers

The families of coronavirus victims from the Anfield game are now calling for answers

Former Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson believes the game should not have gone ahead

Former Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson believes the game should not have gone ahead

Former Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson, who commissioned an inquiry into the decision to let the game proceed, believes it should not have done. Neither does Steve Rotherham, metro mayor of the Liverpool city region, who believes the game went ahead as part of a policy of 'herd immunity' Government were pursuing at the time.

A joint report by the House of Commons Health and Science select committees this month found that an additional 37 deaths occurred at local hospitals after the Atletico game. It is not clear whether they were as a result of actually attending the game or associated travel and congregation in pubs.

Liverpool FC declined to comment on how close they came to putting the game on behind closed doors, though Jurgen Klopp's comments pre-match revealed the confusion about what was best, in the absence of advice.

'The problem with football games is if you are not in the stadiums then you go to watch it closely together in rooms and I'm not sure which is better in this case,' he said.

The Covid-19 Families for Justice Group, of which the Mawsons are a part, are fighting to ensure that the decision to allow mass gatherings like the Atletico game to go ahead must form part of the public inquiry into the pandemic, which will begin next April.

John Ashton supports that. He recalls some of the 'stupid' comments emanating from Government at the time.

Liverpool declined to comment on the decisions leading up to the game on March 11, 2020

Liverpool declined to comment on the decisions leading up to the game on March 11, 2020

'There was talk about all fans pointing in the same direction and about them only being in stadiums for a few hours,' he says.

'Unbelievable. There were thousands of visitors in town for 24 hours. People in bars rubbing shoulders. It wasn't a genteel trip to the opera we're talking about.

'Those comments showed how narrow the backgrounds of those in authority were. They don't have the remotest idea what it's like for ordinary people and ordinary fans.'

Jamie Mawson is still just looking for answers. 'I hold the Government accountable,' he says. 'Dad was 70 when he died and not an old 70. If that game had not gone ahead, he would still be with us now.'

Additional reporting by Pete Jenson in Madrid.

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