When Nic Cruwys’ taxi arrived to drive him to Hemel Hempstead station ahead of Watford’s trip to Wolverhampton Wanderers in March last year, the hustle and bustle of family life meant he didn’t get to say goodbye to wife Jodie.
“I was emptying the washing machine,” she says. “I just shouted through, ‘Have a good day see you later.’ That was it. He was off out of the door.”
They wouldn’t talk to each other for nearly three weeks, as Nic lay in a hospital bed seriously ill. His day out to Wolverhampton descended into a nightmare ordeal. A random vicious attack after the game put Nic into a coma for 18 days. It was feared his head injuries would prove fatal. Surgeons considered operating to relieve the pressure on his brain. They couldn’t guarantee he’d survive.
So began a traumatic wait-and-hope vigil for Jodie, their children Talia and Harley and their family as Nic lay critically ill in intensive care at Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital. Initially there were flickers of hope as Nic started to respond to treatment. Then his condition slowly improved. It was only the start of a long battle to help him recover. Jodie vividly remembers the phone call she received from one of Nic’s friends to say there was a problem. A big problem.
“Straight away I was worried, but only because I thought he’d come back with two black eyes,” she says. “After that I didn’t hear anything for two hours. I was starting to get a little concerned and then came a phone call from a doctor at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital who said Nic had suffered multiple fractures to his head and face, had two bleeds on the brain and that he’d been put into a coma. I didn’t know what to think. I was stunned.”
She drove to Birmingham with Nic’s brother Chris and sister Hannah. They arrived at midnight. The place was empty.
“We walked through and pushed the button for critical care but Nic wasn’t there. He was wheeled up behind us on a trolley. Nic’s brother went straight to him. We only got to see him for a second before he was taken away again.”
Four hours later Jodie and Nic’s family were allowed to see him. He was in a critical condition. Doctors feared the worst.
“They told us that if his brain continued to swell then they would have to take him to theatre to try to lift the skull to alleviate the pressure,” Jodie says. “But then they said he was unlikely to make it. I remember feeling numb.”
Nic was spared surgery but remained in a critical but stable condition. His emotionally drained family endured hours and then days waiting for tell-tale signs that the worst was over. After 18 days in a coma Jodie got a call from Nic’s mother.
“I was having lunch in the hospital canteen when she rang and told me to quickly come to his room,” Jodie says. “Straight away I feared the worst. I think that’s natural. I ran there. The physio was lifting his eyelid. When one of us would speak Nic’s eye would move over. It was a big moment because we knew at that point something was going on inside his brain.”
It was an uplifting moment for Nic’s family but his recovery had just begun. He made slight improvements over the following days and was moved out of intensive care and onto a ward. That breakthrough moment was only the start of a life-changing journey. He had to dig deep, really deep to get through.
Nic, affectionately nicknamed Moo by his friends because he worked as a milkman, had an uneasy feeling about travelling to Molineux that day. He felt “something always happens” outside the ground before or after a game there. Now 45, he’s been a Hornets fan for more than 30 years, travelling home and away. He remembers ringing Jodie from a pub prior to the game to let her know he’d arrived safely. It was a short and sweet conversation.
Nic also remembers moments from Watford’s 2-2 draw with Wolves. It was a match that ended in acrimony: Wanderers winger Bakary Sakho was sent off in injury time after an innocuous incident with Watford’s Fernando Forestieri, who grossly exaggerated the contact. It sparked a hostile reaction inside the stadium. Some home supporters left angry.
What happened next is a mystery to Nic. He can’t remember leaving the ground and he doesn’t remember being attacked. His next memory is waking up in hospital in Birmingham and being confused as to why he was there. As his condition improved, he tried to escape.
“I remember being in room 409,” Nic says. “But I didn’t know why I was there. I thought I’d had a work do up there and had ended up hurting my foot. I remember thinking they were starving me in the hospital. I was so hungry. I just wanted to escape. I think I ended up in the coffee shop downstairs on one occasion. Perhaps I just fancied a decent coffee or was trying to get some decent food. Although I had no money, so I am not sure how that would’ve worked out.”
Nic was suffering from post-traumatic amnesia, a condition from which sufferers believe they are being held against their will. It meant any time Jodie, his family or Steve would come to visit him, Nic would be hatching a plan to break out.
He spent six weeks trying to flee from Queen Elizabeth Hospital without success before he was moved to Watford General. That’s when he stepped up his escape plan.
“I remember the Monday before the match against Sheffield Wednesday on the final day,” said Steve, the best man at Nic and Jodie’s wedding. “He’d just been moved down to Watford. I went to see him, walked into his room and he was sat upright. Nic said to me: ’Right, sit down. How are we going to get two tickets for Saturday’s game against Sheffield Wednesday?’ I burst out laughing but had to break it to him that there was no chance he was going.”
Had Nic been able to go, he might have heard his name being sung by the crowd. In the 44th minute of every home and away game for the rest of the season following the match at Wolves, Hornets supporters would chant Nic’s name. At Vicarage Road his picture would be displayed on the big screen. People began to know his face, prompting a few awkward moments at the hospital.
“A couple of times people came up to me and said: ‘Alright Nic mate? How are you doing? You’re looking well’. I didn’t have a clue who they were and why they were talking to me.”
It was during his time in Watford General that Nic’s brother revealed what had happened to him in Wolverhampton. He took it in his stride. What shocked him more was the fundraising page set up by Wolves fan Ollie Floyd to help support Nic and his family following the attack. Almost £40,000 was raised.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Nic says. “That money has been so important. But what I remember is that my brother brought all the comments people had left on the page. I sat there and read every single one. I was touched.”
It was only then that Nic realised the enormity of the attack. Jodie had tried to shield him from what had happened as she didn’t want it to jeopardise his recovery. Initially doctors thought he wouldn’t walk again but he quickly dispelled those fears. His speech wasn’t greatly affected either. After a month at Watford General he was moved to the stroke unit at Hemel Hempstead. Two weeks later he was relocated to Langley House for rehabilitation.
“To begin with we’d been told he wouldn’t be home until Christmas,” Jodie says. “But on his first day there they said he’d be able to go home in a couple of weeks.”
However, the doctors had to make sure sending him home was the right option. Nic spent a night at his Hemel Hempstead home and then a weekend. His progress was encouraging and, three and a half months after he’d left for that game at Wolves, Nic returned home for good.
“It was a brilliant, brilliant day,” he said. “I was ecstatic. It was all I had wanted to do from those early days in Birmingham when I was trying to escape. I can’t really put my feelings into words.”
It was a big step but he was far from making a full recovery. His short-term memory was affected while the right side of his body was dramatically weakened. He continues to have hours of physiotherapy, and an occupational therapist visits the house several times a week. He still can’t write with his right hand, which frustrates him. And he hasn’t been able to drive or work since the attack.
“Everyone says to me that I look fine but they don’t really know what is going on up here in my head,” he says. “I do find that a little bit hard. I have good days and bad days. There have been days where I can’t even be bothered to get out of bed. I can’t be bothered to have a shower. It is just a big effort to do that because I feel I don’t have anything to get up for in the mornings, because I don’t have a job and I can’t drive. I miss driving massively. I miss being able to do the school run. I just want to be normal again. I want to get up in the morning, knowing that I’ve got to go to work. I want to be able to get in my car and drive if I want to. I don’t like relying on people for lifts. It really bugs me.”
But one thing hasn’t changed for Nic and that is going to Watford matches. He was given a pair of free season tickets back in August and has only missed one match at Vicarage Road. He has also travelled to five away games and made it to the Hornets’ FA Cup semi-final defeat at Wembley. “Because I don’t remember anything means I haven’t been put off going,” he says. “If I did then maybe it would be different. But when the fixtures were released last summer I was sat in my living room waiting to see who we were going to face on the opening day. When I saw it was Everton I rang Steve straight away and asked if he fancied a trip to Goodison. Say we were to get relegated next season and the following year we’d have Wolves away, I would go up there no problem. It doesn’t bother me. Although Jodie would probably stop me going up there. I am sure of that. But you can’t change what happened. I look at it as being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Simple.”
It is an admirable and yet remarkable attitude. Nic admits, though, he still doesn’t have closure. He can reel off the names of the six defendants charged with causing grievous bodily harm with intent, who will stand trial in August. But knowing their names doesn’t bring closure.
“When Nic goes to bed he sometimes can’t sleep because he thinks things over in his mind,” he said. “He then starts Googling things because he has questions that can’t ever really be answered. They just go around in his head.”
He plans to travel to Wolverhampton and watch the CCTV video of the attack.
“I want to go up and see it,” Nic says. “It really, really bugs me that I don’t know what happened. It is one of those itches you get. I want to know. People don’t understand why I’d want to go all the way up to Wolverhampton to watch a 20-second video. But I hope that for me it brings me peace of mind. End of.”
Jodie is against the idea. “I don’t want him to watch it. I haven’t seen any of it in the newspapers. I accidentally saw a still image taken from the CCTV of him on the floor and I didn’t sleep for about three days. It messed my head up. So I haven’t watched any of it. I understand why he wants to see it even though I have tried to talk him out of it. I get why he feels it will help him but I can’t watch it. I am not going on that trip.”
Nic has applied for a driving license and is hopeful of returning to work soon.
“I don’t think we’ll get back to where we were before,” Jodie says. “But we’re doing all right. All I wanted was for Nic to be able to kick a ball around with our son. That’s all I wanted for him after it happened. He can do that now. Nic was always confident he’d be OK.”
Nic is not bitter and when you see him in the gym, in Hemel, you are struck by his resilience and determination.
“Do I regret going that day? Of course I do. But I don’t sit here thinking: ‘What would’ve happened if we’d left five minutes later’. It’s not how I think. It’s not how I’ve ever thought. There is no point, in my opinion. I want to look forward now and enjoy being around my family. And going to the football, of course.”
- Cruwys is a holding a fundraising evening at Hemel Hempstead Town FC on Sunday (doors open at 6.30pm) to give something back to the organisations which came to his aid. All proceeds will go to Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham and local charity Headway Hertfordshire, which supports people affected by head and brain injuries. The evening will feature live music and a sports memorabilia auction including signed items such as a Watford FC shirt, Manchester United football, Alan Shearer England shirt and England rugby team photo, as well as a British Tour Car Racing Weekend at Silverstone. There will also be a selection of raffle prizes on offer plus a free buffet and cash bars, with a compere and special football guests. Tickets cost £10 (free entry for Under-16s) and will be available on the night or in advance by calling 07956 400096 or 07780 874035.