A Premier League defeat paled into insignificance for West Ham manager Sam Allardyce on a day the club paid tribute to late Australian striker Dylan Tombides.
Promising youth international Tombides died aged 20 in London on Friday following a three-year battle with testicular cancer and was honoured by his club prior to Saturday’s 1-0 home loss to Crystal Palace.
In moving scenes at Upton Park, Tombides’ father Jim and brother Taylor carried his shirt into the middle of the ground as the entire stadium united for a minute’s applause.
Allardyce, who gave the striker his first-team debut in a League Cup tie in September last year, said it had been a “difficult day” far beyond the club’s relegation worries.
“I’m disappointed we lost a game of football but on a day like this football doesn’t mean an awful lot after what happened to Dylan this week,” Allardyce said.
The club announced it would retire Tombides’ shirt number, 38, an honour bestowed to only one other player in the club’s history.
Perth-born Tombides was considered one of Australian football’s brightest prospects and he was regarded just as highly internally at West Ham.
While his initial diagnoses in 2011 halted his progress through the ranks, he battled back bravely to earn a maiden first-team call up last season before falling ill again.
“Dylan’s fight inside him and desire to overcome this disease and play football again were just unbelievable,” said Allardyce, who joined the club in 2011.
“The way he came in after long bouts of really hard, strenuous treatment that made him very ill indeed, was amazing.
“(Former West Ham first team coach) Wally Downes told me as soon as I got here that the best player in the academy, without a doubt, is going to be Dylan Tombides.
“But because of this horrible disease we could never get him in the first-team squad as often as we’d have liked.”
Football officials, players and fans around the world are mourning Tombides’ death and tribute signs, flowers and Australian flags were on display at the stadium on Saturday.
After carrying his brother’s shirt on to the ground, raising it to the sky and placing it on the ground, Taylor Tombides – a West Ham youth player – later tweeted: “That’s for you Dylan we miss you so much i love you”.
Australian Mile Jedinak, the Crystal Palace captain, scored his first Premier League goal in the match but his celebration was notably muted.