WAGs honour team's lost footballer with topless calendar
David Clensy meets the Winterbourne mother-of-two facing her first Christmas without her husband, who died earlier this year aged just 36 – and finds out how charity fundraising is helping her through her grief
THE Christmas tree is already up in the front room of Rachel Sheppard's Winterbourne home. But the recently widowed mother-of-two admits she is "dreading" the festive period.
For Rachel, and her two young sons, seven-year-old Charlie and two-year-old Jake, it will be the first Christmas they have faced without dad – Rachel's husband of nine years, Mike.
The 36-year-old keen sportsman died in May, after suffering heart failure.
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"Mike was so sporty," Rachel recalls, as she sifts through a handful of old photographs of her husband. "You name it – tennis, golf, football – he loved playing sports, and he was good at them all."
The couple had been teenage sweethearts – together since they met when they were 17, while studying together at Soundwell College.
But the happy young family were stunned when Mike suffered a stroke four years ago.
"A stroke was something that happened to old people, at least that's what we'd thought," Rachel says. "But it came upon Mike so suddenly.
"He was in the middle of a fun day at work – he was a telecommunications engineer with Orange. He developed a severe headache, and at first put it down to a migraine. But it quickly became apparent that something more serious was happening."
Doctors soon confirmed that Mike had suffered a severe stroke, which left him with no vision on his left side.
"The doctors tried to work out why somebody so young and fit would have a stroke, and after some tests, they discovered he had a genetic heart condition, a form of cardiomyopathy – his heart had not developed properly before he was born, which left him more prone to clots, and this is what had caused the stroke."
Mike had a four year battle during which he had to come to terms with his vision loss, taking a daily cocktail of drugs, having a pacemaker fitted and spending many long periods of time in hospital.
The keen sportsman had to learn to adjust to a very different way of life, one where he could no longer play the sports he loved and could no longer work or drive.
"It was awful for him," she says. "He spent so much time in the house, and that was tough for Mike.
"We knew the prognosis wasn't good. But we were hopeful that a match would come up on the donor register, and he would be able to have a heart transplant."Sadly, a match was never found.
Keen to continue living life to the full, in May he joined his former team mates from The Ridings Football Club on a tour of Spain. But tragically, Mike was found dead in his hotel room one morning.
"The guys were devastated," Rachel says. "Everybody was devastated. Nothing can prepare you for losing someone you love so young."
More than 300 mourners attended Mike's funeral – many standing in the rain outside the packed church to pay their respects.
"It's very hard, of course it is," Rachel says. "But I have to keep going for the boys. I've tried to be open with them about what happened to their dad, and they're coming to terms with it well.
"The first year is always going to be horrendous. Each event, each anniversary, each birthday is the first one without Mike. I'm dreading Christmas, but I know I have to go through with everything for the boys' sake."
But Rachel has been helped through the past seven months with the support of her family and friends.
"Some of the guys at the football club wanted to do something in Mike's memory," she says. "And they decided they would do a sponsored cycle along the Great Wall of China, with the aim of raising £15,000 for the British Heart Foundation."
Mike's teammates Damien Gifford and Steve Clarke will take on the gruelling 450km, five-day cycle, in April, alongside Mike's dad Alan and his brother Ricky.
"They were doing such a good job fundraising, we decided that the women should help out too," Rachel says. "So after a few glasses of wine one evening, we decided we would do a semi-naked fundraising calendar, featuring the wives and girlfriends of the players at the club.
"Everyone was happy to do it, as long as it was tasteful, and we found a local photographer, Lydia Samuel, who did a wonderful job."
The combined fundraising efforts have already raised £21,000 – far out-reaching their initial target of £15,000 – with £10,000 raised in a single night, when Rachel and her friends organised a black tie charity ball last month.
As well as raising much-needed funds, their efforts have also helped the charity to raise its profile in the city – the British Heart Foundation (BHF) is currently running a campaign to raise awareness of heart conditions in the young.
Julie Patterson, BHF fundraising volunteer manager, says: "Bristol is a BHF Heart City – we are focusing on raising awareness of heart health across local communities and fundraising for the Mending Broken Hearts appeal. The support we are receiving from people in the Bristol area is fantastic.
"Rachel Sheppard and her family and friends are a wonderful group of people. Their hard work and dedication in setting up Sheppey's Big Heart Appeal in memory of Mike is an inspiration."
For Rachel, the fundraising has helped her get through the last six months.
"All this fundraising work has been great," Rachel says. "It's kept me busy, and given me something to focus on other than losing Mike. It's something positive that has come out of such a sad loss."
The calendar is available in British Heart Foundation Shops in Yate, Clifton, Bishopston, Kingswood and Bedminster, priced £10. You can also order a copy or donate to the fund via the website at www.sheppysheppard.com