Mourners pay tribute to footballer

A TOWN came to a standstill yesterday in tribute to one of the region's top and most popular non-league footballers who collapsed and died at his home aged just 33.

A TOWN came to a standstill yesterday in tribute to one of the region's top and most popular non-league footballers who collapsed and died at his home aged just 33.

The untimely death of former Ipswich Town and AFC Sudbury star Aaron Gardiner sent shockwaves through the East Anglian football scene.

Yesterday, the father-of three's family and hundreds of friends and former team-mates said a final farewell during a touching and emotional funeral service held at the Holy Trinity Church, Long Melford.

Mr Gardiner - who was brought up in Sudbury, but had set up home in Ipswich with his wife-to-be Jo Andrews - was known as showman and renowned for his practical jokes, and yesterday, he was given a fitting send off.

Prior to the service, scores of people lined the streets of Sudbury with heads bowed as a large funeral cortege passed through the town where he grew up. Silence swept across the usually bustling market town as the funeral procession passed, expressing the affection people had for the popular footballer

A car carrying floral tributes to Mr Gardiner - with perhaps the most poignant reading simply 'Daddy' - led the procession and was followed by a horse-drawn glass carriage containing the footballer's coffin and a cortege of eight funeral cars carrying close family and friends.

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The procession stopped outside the Bull Hotel in Long Melford and around 100 people walked behind the horse-drawn carriage for the final 500 yards to the church.

Mr Gardiner's three young daughters, Georgia, 10, Charleigh, 8, and Genna, 6, led the mourners.

Mr Gardiner's fiancée Jo, and his younger sister Mychaela, proudly clasped the children's hands in a brave show of support.

They were followed by his father Rob and other members of his family. Mr Gardiner's grief-stricken former AFC Sudbury team-mates and officials joined the solemn walk to the church dressed in matching suits and the club ties. Former Ipswich Town players, including Jason Dozzell, also joined the mourners.

The church was already packed as the cortege arrived and many had to stand during the service, led by Reverend Ian Friars.

During the, service Mr Gardiner's daughters paid him an emotional tribute.

One said: "Our dad was the best dad in the world, we always had fun."

Another added: "My dad was crazy about football and he was always happy and funny. I loved my daddy and I will miss him very much."

Weeping and sobbing could be heard as Puff Daddy's I'll Be Missing You was played after the girl's tribute.

Mr Gardiner's former AFC Sudbury team-mate, Lee Norfolk, who was due to be his best man, also paid tribute to his "best friend".

He told how Mr Gardiner had been brought up in Acton and Sudbury and how he first emerged as a promising young footballer with local teams Woodhall United and Long Melford before for signing for Ipswich Town after leaving school.

He told how the tragic death of his mother Gillian in 1988 "took the wind out of his sails" while he was still playing for Ipswich.

He described how Mr Gardiner went on to play for Wigan Athletic and several non-league clubs in the region, including AFC Sudbury.

"Aaron was a midfield workhorse, when he was playing you new you had a chance of winning the game," he said:

"Anyone who knew Aaron will always remember him smiling or smirking. He was also an absolutely fantastic dad, who idolised his girls. He was also very much is love with Jo and was looking forward to a long life together.

"Aaron was infectious and I couldn't get enough of the guy, there are so many good memories."

Mr Gardiner's sister read a touching poem in his honour, titled Miss Me but Let Me Go.

Following the church service, Mr Gardiner was buried in the churchyard.

During his Ipswich Town career, Mr Gardiner played against Manchester United youths at Old Trafford in 1989.

After leaving the Blues as a teenager, Mr Gardiner played for some of the region's top non-league football outfits, including Diss Town, Braintree Town, Halstead Town and Cornard United.

He became a firm favourite with his hometown fans during spells with Sudbury Town and Sudbury Wanderers.

The club merged to form AFC Sudbury in 1999, and Mr Gardiner became a key fixture in the new team, making 215 appearances.

He was part of the side that run out at West Ham's Upton Park against Brigg Town for the 2003 FA Vase Final and described the day as one of his proudest moments in football.

Mr Gardiner was preparing to start the new season with Clacton Town when tragedy struck.

He collapsed at his home in Blythe Close on July 21 after a training run.

His fiancée tried desperately to revive him, but nothing could be done to save him. A post-mortem examination revealed he died of natural causes, brought on by heart failure.

Mr Gardiner was known for his tough-tackling style on the pitch and his jovial, Jack-the-Lad approach off the field.

Tributes from across the region have been flooding in since Mr Gardiner's death.

His grieving father said: "He was a brilliant son who was always there for me when I had problems. I don't think we will ever be able to get over this - no words can describe how much he will be missed."

"He was a showman in life and we wanted to give him a real showman's funeral."

A celebration of Mr Gardiner's life was held at Sudbury's Eastern's nightclub following the funeral.

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