Phil Such, the Daily Mail sports sub-cum-rugby reporter who made national news with his inspiring campaign for voluntary euthanasia, died on 19 September at the age of 38 after an incredibly brave fight against a cruel illness.
Only days before at his home in the North Somerset village of Wrington, he had vowed to beat motor neurone disease, one last drop of the indomitable spirit which he somehow dredged from somewhere without allowing the incurable condition to dilute a feisty sense of humour. His last night out to the local, for instance, on 8 August, was to celebrate his birthday with "40 milligrams of morphine and four Jack Daniels!"
Vintage Suchy. Born in Hertfordshire, he dabbled in landscape gardening before entering Harlow Journalism College at 19, then progressed rapidly from the Herts Advertiser to the East Essex Gazette in Clacton-on-Sea and then across country to the Western Daily Press in Bristol.
Within two years of introducing himself to the rugby circuit with a series of scoops on Bath, then Britain’s top club, he became deputy sports editor to Bill Beckett, which allowed him to resume his playing career as a tearaway flanker with Yatton in the Somerset Premier League. A former Player of the Year, he had hung up his boots at the age of 36 to concentrate on his new career at the Mail.
The disease struck just as he was getting into his stride. England’s Jason Robinson had just finished telling the world about his iconoclastic rugby transfer from Wigan to Sale when Phil rang me with the devastating news.
"Look, I’m sorry about this, but I can’t cover the Gloucester match on Saturday. You know I’ve not been feeling great lately and now I know why. I’ve got motor neurone disease."
Tuesday, 17 October, 2000. By the cruellest coincidence, Robinson’s first day in Rugby Union turned out to be Phil’s last in rugby journalism.
Surely it was all some ghastly mistake. How could this happen to a bloke of 36 who only a few months earlier had completed his final season in the Somerset Premier League as a flanker with Yatton, a fitness fanatic, not to mention single-handicap golfer?
In effect he had been given a sentence of death and he knew it better than anyone. He knew, too, from first-hand knowledge, all about the horrors of the disease because he had seen his mother die from it a few years before.
One specialist gave him three months. The reaction to that sledgehammer blow was typical of the man: "I’ll show that so-and-so that he’s talking a load of b*****ks.’
With wonderful defiance and the loving care of Sheryn Alexander, his Australian nurse and partner, Suchy spent the next 12 months "cramming 30 years into one". In his wheelchair, he went to places he had never been before, such as the Pyramids and, best of all, Australia for the last two weeks of the Lions tour. How he loved it and how they loved him. Once home, he campaigned tirelessly for voluntary euthanasia in support of Diane Pretty, another celebrated victim of the disease.
With Phil, there was never any self-pity, never any ‘Why me?’ – just an acceptance of the terrible hand fate had dealt him and a relish to make the best of it.
Ever the pro, he had written his own farewell, which an old friend, BBC reporter Christine Stewart, read to almost 400 mourners during the funeral at South Bristol Crematorium.
Phil Such. Gone, but never forgotten.