A silent Sunday morning off Westgate Highway in central Newcastle, the stands of St James’ Park seen not distant, and in a room on the high of a rambling previous church, pastor Johnny Ferguson is speaking of occasions throughout the planet with an image of Alan Shearer on the wall behind him. Native and international, international and native.

Ferguson recognises the variations and the connections — most Sundays, he and the congregation at Hillsong Church would see these come collectively within the determine of their buddy and fellow believer, Christian Atsu.

Atsu would come up the steep slope from St James’ to hope, a Newcastle United participant who desired the anonymity of church. Yesterday at Hillsong, they had been praying for him.

On Saturday morning, Atsu was confirmed lifeless within the earthquake that has razed a lot of southern Turkey and northern Syria. Ferguson obtained a textual content message on his telephone and, like everybody else at Hillsong, he was distraught.

“It’s simply devastating — he’s 31,” Ferguson says of Atsu, stressing his youthfulness, his younger youngsters and his spouse Marie-Claire. “I knew him from his mid-twenties and I’ve bought younger youngsters myself. I can’t presumably think about what Claire and the children are going by means of.

“The final stat I noticed was that 42,000 individuals have been killed on this earthquake. The numbers are numbing, however when you’ve a deal with on it, it actually brings it house that every a type of numbers is an individual. Each one is a human life. When you’ll be able to put a face and a reputation to it, perhaps it makes it extra of a actuality.”


Christian Atsu outdoors the Hillsong church in Newcastle in 2018 (Picture: Serena Taylor/Newcastle United through Getty Pictures)

As that actuality sunk in, as footage confirmed Atsu’s coffin being boarded onto a aircraft sure for his native Ghana, individuals at Hillsong comforted one another and Ferguson took to the stage to supply a humble tribute to somebody they knew not as a well-known footballer, however as one among them. The loss, he mentioned, is “past phrases”.

Atsu was as soon as interviewed by the Newcastle United match programme inside these partitions, which had been inbuilt 1902, and given what he mentioned about superstar, he would absolutely have permitted of the understated nature of Ferguson’s appreciation. There was no revelling in Atsu’s standing.

“I’m right here to worship God,” Atsu mentioned in that interview. “I wish to stay a free life — I wish to stay the way in which I would like, you perceive?

“In the home of God, I’m regular. Even outdoors, I wish to be regular, to have the ability to do what I would like, to not stay a star life. That’s one thing you may add to it, however I don’t wish to add that to it. I wish to stay a traditional life. Once I’m like that, I feel I’m free.”

Atsu was at Newcastle United from 2016 to 2021 and at St James’ Park — the ‘cathedral on the hill’, as it’s identified in these elements — what followers noticed was a quick-witted, darting winger who performed 32 instances in Rafa Benitez’s Championship-winning staff in 2016-17. His mortgage from Chelsea then grew to become everlasting.

Atsu was 24 when he arrived on Tyneside and after a life spent chasing a profession, he was in a position to settle. His spouse and kids stay in Newcastle and had been company of the membership at St James’ on Saturday night for the sport towards Liverpool. They heard Atsu’s title sung.


Newcastle and Liverpool gamers pay tribute to Christian Atsu earlier than their sport on Saturday (Picture: Stu Forster/Getty Pictures)

“Christian was fairly a quiet man, really,” Ferguson says of the person he bought to know. “He stored himself to himself, no ego ­— not that I ever encountered.

“I had lunch with him on a number of events, I’d attempt to depart the dialog open. I get pleasure from soccer and it’d be straightforward for me to ask him about it, however I’m conscious that these guys are surrounded by it and typically they may simply wish to discuss all the pieces else in life — parenting, all that sort of stuff.

“One factor I bear in mind Christian being actually captivated with was politics in Ghana. He had an actual imaginative and prescient to do some good and provides again to his group.”


A Newcastle United fan holds up an indication in reminiscence of Christian Atsu on the sport towards Liverpool (Picture: Owen Humphreys/PA Pictures through Getty Pictures)

Ferguson remembers that Atsu had first turned up on the church with DeAndre Yedlin. The US worldwide additionally moved to Newcastle in the summertime of 2016.

They weren’t the primary Newcastle gamers to attend Hillsong — the native Ameobi brothers, Shola and Sammy, had been regulars, significantly Sammy. Gael Bigirimana was one other Ferguson bought to know nicely.

“DeAndre would come sometimes,” he says, “Christian and his household had been much more common — the youngsters could be a part of our children’ church. We’re a multi-ethnic church, which is absolutely stunning, and there’s an older Ghanaian couple who took them below their wing a bit of bit.”


Christian Atsu celebrates scoring for Newcastle towards Liverpool in Could 2019 (Picture: Steven Hadlow/MI Information/NurPhoto through Getty Pictures)

A father determine can have meant one thing to Atsu. His personal father, Immanuel, died when he was 12; Christian and his twin sister Christiana had been two of 10 youngsters.

As Atsu would clarify at instances on Tyneside, the delicate life he skilled and noticed his mom lead — in addition to the desperation he witnessed round them in Ada Foah, Accra and elsewhere in Ghana — made him decided to make a distinction to the subsequent technology there. He was industrious and beneficiant in elevating funds for faculties. He arrange an orphanage in Senya Beraku. As he mentioned: “I would like it to be the precise of each baby to go to highschool, to have a greater life and to have a greater future.

“In Africa, you see a number of youngsters on the road. It’s exhausting, it’s actually exhausting. It’s a special world. It’s unbelievable.”


Hillsong church with the stands of St James’ Park looming close by

Atsu spoke of the event of kid trafficking and a part of him could have felt the identical as soccer grew to become more and more globalised throughout his childhood. He was 12 when he entered Feyenoord’s new West African Soccer Academy. By 17, he was at Porto and at 21, he was signed by Chelsea earlier than being despatched on mortgage to Vitesse Arnhem, Everton, Bournemouth, Malaga, then Newcastle. He was a bit in soccer’s new financial fashions. It will need to have been a blur.

Tyneside introduced stability however the nature {of professional} soccer, of incomes a residing, meant that after laying down roots in north-east England, in 2021 Atsu was travelling once more, signing for Al Raed in Saudi Arabia. Final September, he joined Hatayspor in Turkey.

At Hillsong, gently, they had been asking for donations. Newcastle United have misplaced a former participant, right here they’ve misplaced a buddy. In Christian Atsu they overlapped.

“We stay in, and pray for, the renewal of the town,” Ferguson says. “And it’s exhausting in a metropolis like this to not be into soccer, isn’t it? We’re simply over the street.”

(High images: Getty; Owen Humphreys/PA Pictures, Serena Taylor, Richard Sellers/EMPICS; design by John Bradford)

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