TRIBUTES have poured in for a much-loved rugby union player who has tragically passed away at the age of 29.
Matthew Lofthouse, otherwise known as Lofty, died at the beginning of October because of seizure-related issues.
A talented photographer and autism awareness campaigner, he was a popular face at Ashton-under-Lyne Rugby Club, both on and off the pitch.
He came through the ranks as a teenager and progressed into the senior set-up, making a couple of appearances for the first team and establishing himself as a second team stalwart.
When not competing on the pitch, the keen Manchester City supporter was actively promoting the club behind the scenes.
Through his quality photography work, Matthew provided great exposure across all age groups and captured the action at Gambrel Bank.
Having started photography as a hobby, he fell in love with the subject and enrolled on a night course at college, before graduating from the University of South Wales, Cardiff, three years ago.
Such were his talents behind the camera, he was nominated as a finalist in the Photographer of the Year category at the Welsh Media Awards in 2020.
He pursued his passion on a professional basis and landed a job working as a clinical photographer for the NHS in February.
Although Matthew’s death has left a huge hole at Gambrel Bank, second team captain James Bower says his absence will be used to help the club grow stronger.
Speaking to The Correspondent, he said: “There has been a big outpouring of support since his death was announced, not just from the club and the local community but from his friends and colleagues at Cardiff.
“Lofty played for a mixed ability rugby team during his stint in Wales and they’ve taken the decision to retire his shirt number as a tribute to his impact.
“When our first team played at Blackpool a couple of weeks ago, we had commemorative shirts printed with his name on the back, along with the autism awareness badge.
“He would always be approachable and speak to children about the positive impact rugby had on helping him cope with his autism and increase his confidence.
“His loss has left a huge hole in the club. His family have told us that our tributes have helped them to a certain extent, as they’ve seen what an influential figure he was and how he will be missed by everyone.
“He was a really big figure at the club – especially with our age group. Even when he went to Cardiff, he was still in contact with the club on a regular basis and always offered his services where he could.
“He returned to the club on a more permanent basis this season. He was really committed, playing really well for the second team and had ambitions to move into the first team. I’d even argue that he was one of the best players in the second team.
“His death has brought the players closer together as losing someone at such a young age puts things into perspective.
“You never expect it to happen to one of your own, especially Matthew, so we’re hurting from his loss but hoping to use it to come back stronger and do great things with the club in his memory.”
In the wake of his loss, the club is planning to host a memorial game for Matthew in the future.
However, a large gathering of players, friends and family are expected to pay their respects at his funeral on Friday, November 3 at Ashton’s Albion Church.
The club will also have Matthew in mind later that evening during the annual Bonfire Night at Gambrel Bank.
The event, which starts at 7pm, is being held to raise funds for the junior section – an aspect of the club Matthew was passionate about.
James added: “The Bonfire Night is an opportunity to put the club in a positive light and welcome new faces to the ground, showcasing what we offer both on and off the pitch.
“All the proceeds raised will go towards the mini and juniors section. Without these funds, the junior section wouldn’t be as strong as it currently is.
“Our priority is to develop the junior section even further, starting from the age of three with our tiny tacklers session.
“We host the sessions, which take place every Sunday at 2pm, to spark an interest in rugby from a young age.
“There is no contact involved as the sessions are tailored towards having fun with enjoyable activities and mini assault courses.
“We’ve had great success with developing juniors in the past and a lot of those players have stayed with the club and now represent us at senior level. It’s something we want to build on as club’s in our position depend on creating a natural pathway into the senior section.
“Matthew was an example our success in this area, which is why he was so supportive with our juniors. Not only would he support them with their rugby, but he’d open up and talk about the way in which rugby helped his autism.”
For one time only in April, Matthew starred in front of the camera for a feature on BBC Breakfast. As part of a drive to increase awareness about autism, he spoke candidly about the disorder and the way a career in photojournalism helped him to grow in confidence.
James said the club are aiming to honour his memory on the pitch, as the first and second team look to continue their unbeaten start to the season in their ultimate pursuit of silverware.
He continued: “It would be great to continue our great start to the season and, if things go well, deliver success at the end of the season.
“We’re in a promising position to achieve just that, as we’re managing to field 40 senior players on a weekly basis across two age groups.
“It’s been a tough period since Matthew’s death, but hopefully we can do him proud and impress on the pitch.”