A Ukrainian refugee was treated to a football supporter’s dream day out just days after arriving in the UK as he led Gillingham out in front of thousands of fans.
Daniel Lysak, 11, fled his home near Lviv in western Ukraine with his mother, Yana, and arrived in England on Friday April 8 to their UK sponsor’s house in Folkestone, Kent.
Less than two weeks later, he led the home side out at Priestfield Stadium with captain Stuart O’Keefe ahead of their crucial League One fixture against Fleetwood Town.
Daniel’s British host and Gillingham fan Malcolm Bell said he was “incredibly proud” to watch Daniel walk out with his son Freddie.
“I’m going to use the word overwhelming, it really was,” Mr Bell told the PA news agency.
“To see my boys there and to see Daniel there was an incredibly proud moment.
“Then as I was walking off the pitch with them, Stuart O’Keefe came up and shook my hand and looked me in the eye and said ‘have a good game’. That meant the world to me.”
Mr Bell had initially hoped Daniel would be given a shout-out at the League One match but the 11-year-old was given a tour of Priestfield Stadium, met the players and manager Neil Harris, and flanked the team’s captain as they made their way on to the pitch.
He was also invited to have a photo taken with man of the match Ryan Jackson in the boardroom afterwards.
The Gills took a point after a feisty game ended 0-0, with a player from each team sent off in the second half.
“It was 0-0 but it was a good game,” Mr Bell said.
“The atmosphere in the ground was the best I’ve seen for a very long time.”
Daniel told PA he was “very excited” after his big day out, and confirmed he would like to go again to watch the Gills.
Despite Gillingham sitting just one place above the relegation zone with a couple of games to play, the fans took the time to give Daniel a warm welcome.
“A lot of people were saying to me ‘well done, thank you, you’re doing a great job’,” said Mr Bell.
“Lovely comments… but also other people patting Daniel on his shoulder and stuff like that and welcoming him, it was a really nice touch.
“I’m proud of Gillingham Football Club for what they did.”
Gillingham said in a statement: “Gillingham Football Club were honoured to welcome Daniel, along with Gills fan Malcolm Bell, to MEMS Priestfield Stadium on Easter Monday as our special guests.
“This was Daniel’s first ever live football match and he was given a guided tour of the ground, which involved meeting members of the playing squad in the dressing room and manager Neil Harris in the dugout.
“We hope Daniel enjoyed his experience and we hope to see him again in the near future.”