FA Cup fourth round: Derby County v West Ham UnitedVenue: Pride Park Date: Monday, 30 January Kick-off: 19:45 GMTCoverage: Commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live; live text and watch highlights on BBC Sport website & app
“I have a photo of Dad by the side of my bed,” says Max Bird. “He’s in a Manchester United shirt and we’re on holiday. At night, before I go to sleep, I talk to him.”
On 24 February 2019, the Derby County midfielder lost his 45-year-old father to a combination of pneumonia and sepsis.
Eight hours after Andrew passed away, Bird captained the Rams to an 8-1 win over Bristol Cityexternal-link in an under-23 cup fixture at Loughborough University Stadium. He was 18 at the time.
“Dad would have been raging had I not played that day,” Bird, 22, tells BBC Sport. “I needed to play football. It would have eaten away at me more had I missed the match.”
As League One Derby prepare to host Premier League West Ham in the fourth round of the FA Cup on Monday (19:45 GMT), Bird opens up on how football has helped him cope with bereavement, grief and loss.
“At one stage Dad was doing well in hospital,” he adds. “He was fighting and fighting for two weeks. Then there was a slow deterioration.
“I cannot put into words what it was like.”
‘So proud of you’
In Bird’s house is a games room and in it hangs a framed white shirt with the number 13 on it. It is the one his dad wore when playing basketball for England at youth level.
Andrew, who was 6ft 7in tall, passed up the chance to go to the United States and play basketball while studying.
“He was always on at me because he had missed his opportunity and didn’t want to see my talent go to waste,” adds Bird, who grew up watching Manchester United with his dad at Old Trafford.
As season ticket holders, the pair would travel from Burton, Staffordshire, to watch Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes and Wayne Rooney propel Sir Alex Ferguson’s side towards a Premier League and Champions League double in 2007-08.
Bird, who was seven at the time, recalls one game in particular that season, which they watched together at Old Trafford.
“I remember crying when the teams came out for the Champions League semi-final with Barcelona because it was the best atmosphere I had ever witnessed,” he says.
“I was a season ticket holder from the age of six to about 11. The amount of stuff I learned from just sitting there, I was glued to the games.
“On the way home we’d dissect the match together and talk about who had played well and who hadn’t.”
Andrew, described as a “gentle giant” who dedicated his life to education,external-link watched his son flourish at Derby’s academy and would post messages on social media charting his progress.
Two months before he died, Andrew wrote on Twitter: “So proud of you mate – stay focused and humble, then there is plenty more to come!” He had just seen his son make his first league appearance for the Rams at the age of 18.
“If I had a bad game he’d tell me and if I had a good game he’d shake my hand and say ‘now go and do it again’,” adds Bird.
“He drilled it into me I had to be the best every week. He’d say things like ‘never be satisfied, always want more’.
“It wasn’t always football stuff. He’d tell me how to be a good person and say ‘look after your mum and your brother’. He’d be on to me about being a leader.
“He’d say to me ‘you’re going to play for England’ all the time. ‘Believe in yourself… you’re going to play for England.'”
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‘I played hours after dad passed away’
It was between 4am and 5am when Andrew died in the Queen’s Hospital, Burton. Bird, who was asleep in a room at the hospital, was woken and told the news.
After spending some time alone with his father, he rang his Derby academy manager Darren Wassall to tell him the news and that he still wanted to play against Bristol City later that day.
“Darren asked ‘are you sure?’,” says Bird. “Dad would have wanted me to play. When I was growing up, whenever I was upset I would go and kick a football and run after it.”
On the game itself, he adds: “I’d had about four hours’ sleep and I was eating jelly babies to try and give myself an energy boost.
“I saw Darren and Pat [Lyons, academy coach] before the game and cried my eyes out to them. I then went into the dressing room and tried to be myself. It’s one of the toughest things I have ever done.”
It was only after the Premier League Cup tie that Bird told his team-mates his dad had died.
‘I lock myself away and let it all out’
Bird never got the chance to tell his dad he loved him as he lay in a coma in hospital.
“I tell my brother, Charles, I love him every day because of that,” he says. “He’s my best mate, we have a really tight relationship.
“My mum, Lisa, lives close to me. We enjoy each day as it comes because of what happened. We never take anything for granted.”
Bird is full of praise for Frank Lampard, Derby’s manager at the time of Andrew’s death, for the way he handled the situation.
“He rang my mum, he rang my brother. We played Aston Villa in the Championship six days after my dad passed and we lost 4-0.
“Frank came into the dressing room after the game and said ‘you are all pants apart from one player’. He pointed at me. He was like, ‘he’s just lost his dad and he can do this’.”
It is approaching the fourth anniversary of Andrew’s death.
“I’ve learned to deal with it in different ways,” Bird says. “I talk to him. Before each game I take a little time to think what he wants from me.
“My way of dealing with it is locking myself away, letting it all out and then having a laugh with my mates. My dad knew all my mates and used to join in with us and be a big kid.”
Since losing his dad, Bird has established himself in Derby’s first team and captained the Rams against Liverpool at Anfield in the Carabao Cup earlier this season. He has also played alongside Rooney, who he idolised as a young Manchester United fan.
What advice would his dad give him before facing West Ham in the FA Cup?
“He’d tell me to go out and show them I belong on this stage,” says Bird.
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