Remembering Aaron Flahavan - the tragic goalkeeper whose death united Portsmouth and Southampton in grief

The gathering takes place this time every year. A date they long to forget, yet insist on remembering.

Thursday, 5th August 2021, 6:30 pm
Updated Thursday, 5th August 2021, 6:48 pm
Former Pompey keeper Aaron Flahavan tragically passed away on August 5, 2001. Picture: Malcolm Wells

On this occasion there will be 10 around the table of a restaurant in Southampton’s Ocean Village.

Fittingly, among tomorrow night’s number will be former Pompey and Southampton players.

In August 2001, the tragic death of Aaron Flahavan bridged the 18-mile divide to unite two football clubs in grief.

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Aaron Flahavan celebrates Pompey's win over Barnsley at Fratton Park in May 2001 to avoid relegation. Picture: Malcolm Wells

Pompey’s first-choice goalkeeper had made 105 appearances after emerging through the Fratton Park ranks, establishing himself as a worthy successor to the legendary Alan Knight.

Then, on this day 20 years ago, the 25-year-old died in a car crash outside Bournemouth on the eve of the 2001-02 season.

His passing touched two cities possessing an often toxic footballing rivalry.

A Southampton lad who still lived in the Gloucester Square area of the city, the naturally ebullient Flahavan was never influenced by such tribalism, sharing strong relationships with both dressing rooms.

Aaron Flahavan with his brother and fellow goalkeeper, Darryl

As a close friend, Saints striker Kevin Davies thought nothing of venturing to Fratton Park to join Blues mourners, laying a tribute in the goalmouth beneath the Fratton end.

And tomorrow night, he and Flahavan’s ex-Pompey team-mate Matt Robinson will be among those toasting the charismatic goalkeeper’s memory.

‘Receiving that phone call in the early hours of that Sunday morning was tough,’ Davies told The News.

‘Me and Garry Monk went with his brother Darryl to identify the body the next day. I can remember it like yesterday. It was heartbreaking.

Aaron Flahavan celebrates with the Pompey fans at Valley Parade after a 3-1 win over Bradford preserves their Division One status in May 1998

‘A couple of days before the funeral, I took Darryl down to sit with him for an hour. Then, the evening before the service, a lot of Aaron’s old pals, acquaintances and team-mates gathered at the De Vere Grand Harbour Hotel for beers and to tell a few stories and reflect.

‘In terms of football, I know there’s always that rivalry there, but it never got in the way of our friendship.

‘Two or three of the Pompey players would come out with Southampton boys and vice versa, it was never anything which came between us. We were just a bunch of friends who enjoyed each other's company – and Aaron was at the heart of it.

‘At my first week’s training with Southampton, we were over Winchester at an Army barracks, and Darryl got hold of me on the Friday.

Fans pay homage to Aaron Flahavan in the goalmouth underneath the Fratton End, with a Southampton shirt touchingly also present. Picture: Malcolm Wells

‘It’s sometimes difficult for new players coming down, you don’t know people, yet he invited me out for a beer. That’s when I met Aaron and a group of friends which I still speak to regularly.

‘When I lived with Darryl in Ocean Village, Aaron was always around and a big part of the socials. We called it our little Sunday club. He was lively, always smiling, a big character who enjoyed life and lived it to its fullest.

‘We trained and did our jobs at different clubs, then enjoyed each other’s company. We went to Ayia Napa together, I remember him wearing an Elvis suit for my 21st birthday fancy dress at Leisure World.

‘I didn’t get to see too much of him in a football capacity, we played for separate clubs. Yet those friendships weren’t really revolving around football as such, we were doing what 20-21 year-old kids do.

‘Our group of friends still speak regularly and, when this time of year comes around, we meet up to remember.

‘Aaron had so much ahead of him in terms of his career and his life.’

Aaron Flahavan made 105 appearances for Pompey before his tragic death in August 2001

Work commitments prevent brother Darryl from attending the Southampton gathering marking 20 years since Aaron’s passing.

Having been appointed Wigan’s goalkeeping coach in June, the 42-year-old is preparing for Saturday’s League One opener at Sunderland.

At two years Aaron’s junior, the brothers grew up in the Harefield area of Southampton as a single parent family after their dad left when Darryl was aged five.

Although Woodlands Community College was closer, it was decided the pair would attend Bitterne Park School, which had a fine reputation as a football team, with Darren Anderton among former pupils.

From an early age, the brothers were on the books of Pompey’s School of Excellence. When Darryl moved to Southampton aged 12, his older brother remained at Fratton Park, progressing to challenge Alan Knight.

As a 19-year-old, Aaron was granted his first-team debut in January 1995, coming off the bench after Knight had been dismissed against Leicester City in an FA Cup tie.

He went on to make 105 appearances, including twice featuring in dramatic last-day victories to avoid Division One relegation – Bradford (1998) and Barnsley (2001).

Darryl Flahavan added: ‘Something as tragic as Aaron’s death makes you realise how insignificant football is sometimes. What’s important is family and friends.

‘I understand rivalry in football, it’s there and always will be. Yet with Aaron, it goes to show how both sets of players are able to put those rivalries aside to celebrate somebody’s life, regardless of what shirt he pulled on as a player.

‘Time heals a bit, but there remains a massive void in the lives of me and my family, we will never forget him.

‘Most years we get together as friends and remember Aaron. We have a beer for him and share memories. It’s about celebrating his life.

‘It still hurts, sometimes it gets me down, but we try to celebrate his life as much as we can, appreciating the time we had with him, no matter how short it was.

‘We always enjoyed each other’s company and hung out together. As brothers we were really close. When dad left, mum looked after us on her own, while also going out to work.

‘Me and Aaron brought each other up and we’d constantly play football together. He wasn’t just a brother, but a father figure to me, someone I grew up idolising.’

Flahavan’s impressive Pompey progress was, however, checked by a baffling health issue.

In September 1998, he inexplicably fainted during a match with Swindon, allowing George Ndah to slide the ball into an empty net while the keeper was flat on his back.

It recurred 12 months later in September 1999, on that occasion keeling over while dribbling the ball to the edge of his Fratton Park penalty area.

Blackburn striker Nathan Blake ran over to Flahavan’s aid rather than capitalising, with Andy Petterson coming off the bench to subsequently replace the keeper.

Medical experts, including Harley Street doctors, struggled to diagnose the issue, yet, ahead of the 2001-02 campaign, there was renewed hope.

Having been allocated the number one shirt by manager Graham Rix, Flahavan underwent a procedure in July 2001 which surgeons were convinced would finally resolve the issue.

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The operation ruled him out of the final four pre-season fixtures. In his absence, 21-year-old Chris Tardif deputised, while Columbian international Fernando Navarro Montoya briefly trialled.

On August 4, 2001, Pompey hosted Leicester City for their final summer friendly, with the incapacitated Flahavan watching from the Fratton Park stands.

He was afterwards informed by goalkeeping coach Knight that the Blues would be recruiting 42-year-old Dave Beasant to stand-in during his ongoing injury absence.

The following morning, Flahavan had passed away.

Knight said: ‘The ongoing joke was Flav was too good looking to be a goalkeeper.

‘All the girls took a shine to Flav, he had this infectious personality, such a nice guy, constantly laughing and joking.

‘On a selfish note, I knew I was coming to the end of my career and it seemed a natural progression for me to help bring someone into the position I had held for so long.

‘In my weird own mind, I was looking at that as my legacy in a way. Rixy had decided Flav was his number one ahead of that season, that was the plan, it was just the issue of the fainting.

‘I don’t think a lot of people realise that Flav was very fastidious about his goalkeeping, incredibly focused and dedicated.

‘That work ethic and striving for perfection could drive me potty on the training field, I’d have to drag him off sometimes. He used to give everything, to the point of sometimes being sick.

‘He never suffered a blackout in training, though, it was only in match situations on those couple of occasions.

‘The weeks prior to Flav’s death, he’d undergone an operation involving going up through his groin to close the leaks in his heart valve. The surgeon believed that would be enough to end the fainting.

‘Unfortunately, he was running out of time to make the start of the season, while Tardif was untried and inexperienced. That’s why we went for Dave Beasant.

‘I explained it to Flav after the game and he understood. He accepted he wouldn’t be ready for the season, yet was up for the battle.’

In the early hours of Sunday morning, Flahavan’s BMW 328 struck an inside curb while driving along the A338 towards Bournemouth.

It crashed through the central reservation and crossed the northbound carriageway, before resting on its roof in thick undergrowth.

Pompey’s first-choice goalkeeper died at the scene after suffering a fractured skull. A post-mortem examination showed he was almost three times over the legal limit for alcohol.

Flahavan’s funeral was held at St James’ Church in West End, with around 400 present, including Pompey’s first-team squad, chairman Milan Mandaric, and his former managers Alan Ball and Steve Claridge.

Representing Southampton was boss Stuart Gray along with the majority of his side, among them Davies, James Beattie, Francis Benali and Paul Jones.

‘It’s still difficult talking about Flav, I would hate to think he would ever be forgotten,’ added Knight.

‘His team-mate, Ceri Hughes, called me around 10am that Sunday to explain what had happened. A friend of mine ran the Trafalgar Arms in Fratton Road and opened it up early for the team to congregate.

‘Over the course of the day, more or less the whole squad attended, including Rixy, commiserating with each other over a pint.

‘I don't want to be selfish and bring it back to me, but, I must admit, Flav’s death did affect me greatly, both mentally and psychologically.

‘Considering my personal life around that time, alcohol added to a perfect storm of disasters which were going on. Flav’s passing was just another excuse for drinking instead of facing stuff.

‘Lots of people had to deal with the hurt of losing him, I’m not the only one. Speaking for myself, though, it was part of my own journey and being an alcoholic.

‘The funeral was very difficult, unfortunately I took the coward’s way out and got myself absolutely plastered in the end. I got drunk at the wake – it was an excuse for me.

‘Every time I drive down that dual carriageway, I wonder which bit was where it happened. What a terrible waste of a young life.

‘I’m now at an age where unfortunately I find myself having to talk about the passing of former team-mates. But Flav was just 25 when he died.

‘We will never know just how far he could have gone in football.’

Darryl Flahavan had established himself at Southend United by the time of his brother’s death.

He went on to amass almost 500 career matches, also turning out for Crystal Palace, Leeds, Oldham, Bournemouth and Crawley.

In addition, there was an emotional return to Fratton Park for the 2010-11 season, where he served as number two to Jamie Ashdown without making an appearance.

Since retirement in June 2016, he has carved out a fine reputation as a goalkeeping coach and is presently with Wigan, following spells with Leeds, Middlesborough, Birmingham and Sheffield Wednesday.

There is also a third-generation Flahavan goalkeeper, with Darryl’s 17-year-old son having been on the books of Pompey and Middlesbrough and is now weighing up an American scholarship.

He is called Aaron.

‘Time is a healer, but you never forget. My brother’s death was like losing my right arm,’ said Darryl.

‘There are days I sit there with my kids and wish they could have met their uncle.

‘I named my son Aaron as a tribute to him. For my girls Ava and Alba, I used the first letter of his name in memory of him.

‘Time does move on, but you never forget – and I don’t ever want to forget. He was everything to me. He still is.

‘August 5 is a significant date, it’s like a birthday. When it comes around it brings up memories.

‘Aaron’s death is something I don’t feel I’ve ever got over, not even now. I’m quite an unemotional person, certainly not one that wears my heart on my sleeve, I keep it close to my chest, going away in my own time to reflect.

‘But there are days when the emotions come out. It's hard, yet you have to try to get on with your life.

‘I won’t forget Aaron, though. So many of us never will.’

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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Aaron Flahavan picture with his brother, Darryl
Pompey goalkeeping coach Alan Knight's tribute to his friend and colleague Aaron Flahavan in August 2001
Pompey's players observe a minute's silence for Aaron Flahavan at their home Division One encounter with Bradford in August 2001. Picture: Steve Reid