United fans John Alder and Liam Sweeney at Forsyth Barr Stadium last night are (from left) Devin Williams, of Dunedin; Steve Downey, of Dunedin; Scotty Boyd, of Auckland; Paul Fitzsimmons, of the Gold Coast; Steve Binns, of Melbourne; and Chris Taylor, of Auckland. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
Two empty seats stood out in the sea of black and white.
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They were waiting for men from the other side of the world,
who never arrived.
Instead, photographs of John Alder, of Gateshead, and Liam
Sweeney, of Newcastle, looked out from seats F 244 and F 245
in the Forsyth Barr Stadium South Stand last night.
The friends, on the adventure of a lifetime to support their
beloved Newcastle United in faraway New Zealand, died when
Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot out of the sky over
Ukraine last Friday.
Newcastle United manager Alan Pardew and captain Fabricio
Coloccini placed floral tributes on their seats before last
night's pre-season match against Sydney FC, beside bouquets
from the New Zealand Newcastle United Supporters Club.
A large black and white banner, which read ''RIP John and
Liam'', was strapped across the front of the Mitre 10 Mega
Mr Alder (63) and Mr Sweeney (28) may never have got to see
their club play in Dunedin but Newcastle players, management
and fans are determined they will never be forgotten.
As Dunedin rose yesterday morning, hundreds of Newcastle fans
were leaving a memorial service half a world away at St James
Park, in England.
A poem read at the service, Loyal to the End, could
have been penned in Dunedin last night.
Two empty spaces in the crowd,
Don't worry though,
we'll cheer you loud.
The tragic news was sad and dark,
But you'll be the light at St James Park.
In the stand, Newcastle-born Ian Heron, of Melbourne, wrapped
black tape around fans' arms as they arrived.
''We want to honour them the way they honoured the team. It's
what football's all about,'' Mr Heron said.
The Newcastle players ran on to the pitch wearing tracksuit
tops bearing the legend ''In Memory of John and Liam'', and
There was disappointment, though, among the crowd of about
10,000 that the team wore its muted grey strip, rather than
its traditional black and white.
At the 28th minute, an image of Mr Sweeney appeared on the
big screens, in tribute to his age.
''There's only one Liam Sweeney, one Liam Sweeney,''
supporters sung and clapped.
Mr Alder was similarly acknowledged in the 63rd minute.
''John was famous.
''He was a legend, who was in the Newcastle United
supporters' hall of fame. Everyone knew him,'' Geordie Scotty
Boyd, of Auckland, said.
''He missed one game in 40 years. In any form of life, to be
that passionate about something is unreal,'' Malcolm Baxter,
formerly of Wallsend, now Christchurch, said.
Mr Sweeney was remembered as a popular identity.
''He was a really nice guy. He was quite a quiet guy, except
on Saturdays,'' Danielle Sutcliffe, formerly of Newcastle,
now Dunedin, said.
Newcastle United has dedicated its 2014-15 Premier League
season to the two men.