Remembering Dylan Tombides – the young Australian who left a lasting legacy at West Ham

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Remembering Dylan Tombides – the young Australian who left a lasting legacy at West Ham

Every day when George Moncur wakes up, he thanks God for letting Dylan Tombides come into his life. April 18 will mark 10 years since the former West Ham United forward lost a three-year battle with testicular cancer at the age of 20. For Moncur, the date evokes a deeper bond with Tombides.

“The biggest sign is my daughter’s (Saylor Rose) birthday is the same day,” says the now Leyton Orient midfielder. “She will be five on Thursday and her birthday being on the same day Dylan passed away means a lot to me. That just makes me think how real God is, because not only is it the day a special kid was born, but a day my best friend sadly left us.”

Tombides, who was born in Perth, Western Australia and joined West Ham in 2008, had been diagnosed with testicular cancer in the summer of 2011. Initially, he thought it was a cyst but when he played for Australia at the Under-17 World Cup in Mexico, he was selected for a random doping test and it uncovered a tumour in one of his testicles.

He had been hit by a ball in the groin in a match against Brazil and thought it was nothing more than a routine dull ache. He was told it was testicular cancer while on holiday in the Mexican resort of Cancun with his dad, Jim, and he would need to have a testicle removed.

Tombides fought hard for three years but passed away with his family by his side. There were tributes from West Ham majority shareholder David Sullivan, co-owner David Gold, their long-time academy director Tony Carr, Australia international stalwart Tim Cahill, world football governing body FIFA’s then president Sepp Blatter and others.

It was a life cut short but many cherish the memories they experienced with Tombides. The forward was regarded as one of the brightest young talents at West Ham and was given his first-team debut by Sam Allardyce in September 2012. He was a team-mate but, more importantly, a close friend of whom Moncur, Matthias Fanimo, Kieran Sadlier and Elliot Lee, a star of Wrexham’s recent resurgence who wears the No 38 shirt to this day in his honour, will always have a lasting legacy — all have his name tattooed on their wrists.

West Ham retired Tombides’ No 38 shirt and paid tribute to him in their first Premier League game after his untimely passing, against Crystal Palace.

“The game was a special moment, knowing what it was representing and the Australian football community,” says Mile Jedinak, Tottenham Hotspur’s assistant coach and a former Australia international who got the only goal as Palace won that day, but did not celebrate. “I scored a penalty in the game and it was a surreal moment. For Crystal Palace, it meant we were safe in the Premier League but I was mindful of what the game was after I scored.

“I was a young parent then, and all I could think about at the time was wanting to offer my condolences to his family. I could do it after the game, and from that moment, I stayed in touch with them. I was aware Dylan was making waves at West Ham. You don’t play for a club like that if you don’t have something about you. It would’ve been nice to play against Dylan but sadly it wasn’t meant to be. He was well on his way to becoming a big star in the game.”

Last Sunday’s 2-0 loss against Fulham was used to highlight the charity set up in Dylan’s memory, called DT38. Both sets of supporters commemorated Tombides with a minute’s applause in the 38th minute of the match.

Dylan’s mum, Tracy, at the game against Fulham (DT38 charity)

Ten years on, The Athletic has spoken to former team-mates, managers and family in tribute to Tombides.

Tombides played his early football in his hometown of Perth and in Hong Kong before joining West Ham as a 14-year-old. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of Australians Cahill and Jedinak by playing in the Premier League. It did not take long for him to impress.

“I remember Dylan turning up to training with a strong Aussie accent, terrible gear and a terrible trim (haircut),” says Dan Potts, who is now at Luton Town in the Premier League. “We came back for pre-season one summer and he looked a completely different player. He was frightening in training. His finishing and touch improved, and then it went on from there.”

For Moncur, his bond with Tombides grew off the pitch, after a slow start.

“When Dylan joined the academy, he was a striker,” says Moncur. “He rocked up to training with this mullet haircut, me and Elliot Lee said, ‘Who is this geezer?’. Then we saw him play, and he was so good. He made his debut under Big Sam (Allardyce) and he was the only one at that time who got near the first team.

“My earliest memory of Dylan is a pre-season trip to Hong Kong. He was in the age group below me for the academy, but because my birthday is in August I got to play with him. We weren’t really close on that trip and we had a little bit of an argument about something, but we just became inseparable after.

“Once, he got the worst haircut in the world; and two days later, I decided to get an even worse haircut. One day, he bought pink football boots, then I decided to do the same. We were brothers. I’m very loud and Dylan was the Australian version of myself. That’s why we got on so well.”

Sadlier, the now Wycombe Wanderers midfielder, often roomed with Tombides on away trips. He would watch his team-mate take his medication daily but, out of respect, never asked Tombides about his mental state.

“You could physically see Dylan was becoming weaker than the others, but I’ve never seen someone so bubbly and happy when they’re going through so much behind closed doors,” says Sadlier. “We’d come back to the changing room after training and our clothes would be taped up — Dylan was a prankster. He was still the same and I used to admire that so much about him.

“I often think seeing us was his release. I never once saw Dylan cry or feel sorry for himself. He was always happy and that’s what sums him up.”

The tattoos of Tombides’ team-mates (George Moncur)

The DT38 Foundation was launched in memory of Tombides in February 2015.

Tracy, his mother, has made it her objective to raise awareness of testicular cancer, the importance of education and self-checking to enable early diagnosis through the charity.

“Dylan was so inspirational,” Tracy says. “Every day, he would get out of bed to fight his disease, even though no one would blame him if he wanted to stay curled up in bed. He pushed himself as much as he was allowed, as West Ham’s medical staff would keep a very close eye on him with regular testing.

“He made it easy to be around him. He made everyone else comfortable about him having cancer. Seeing him get up every day and go in to training gave me such hope that he was winning this fight for his life.

“I don’t know where the time has gone, but the one thing I do know is that he has shaped my existence. I talk to Dylan every day.

“Dylan had an incredible zest for life. He was so determined to be the best version of himself, and the person he inspired the most was me. After Dylan passed away, I was numb. The only thing that was important to me was to give (sibling) Taylor the tools to manage the loss of his brother. We all grieved differently and my focus had to be Taylor and the charity, DT38, that we started in Dylan’s memory.

West Ham’s players and fans in the minute’s applause in their first game after the passing of Tombides (Christopher Lee/Getty Images)

“This was my reason to get out of bed. I would always say to myself, ‘What would Dylan do?’, and Dylan would be strong and lead by example and make something good out of this heartbreaking situation.

“ I’ve started many things over the past 10 years but the one thing that I’m so immensely proud of is the charity in his memory, and the wonderful legacy that he has left behind. He was such a loveable character and his death will not be in vain.”

Tracy recalls a moment when Dylan, Taylor and Jim were playing their usual round of golf one afternoon and the latter shanked one off the tee. The trio laughed as they wondered where it had ended up. It was only when they returned to the car park that they found what it had hit — their own car’s windscreen.

Tombides once described himself as the “happiest kid with cancer” you could meet.

In January 2012, he had surgery to remove his lymph nodes. Family, friends and staff at West Ham thought Tombides’ condition was improving but the cancer returned. Every time there was a breakthrough, Tombides would receive devastating news of a setback.

Reflecting on his friend’s initial diagnosis still feels surreal for Moncur.

“I’ll never forget the day we found out Dylan was ill,” he says. “It was a Saturday and we had a game at Chadwell Heath (the old West Ham training ground) but Dylan wasn’t there and no one said why. Afterwards, Tony Carr sat us down and said he has testicular cancer. It was out of the blue, and we didn’t see Dylan for ages because he was having his treatment.

“There are so many moments with Dylan that I cherish. We went on a trip and there was this goalkeeper called Jake Larkins. We all got on well but he (Larkins) hated people touching his stuff. We’re at the airport waiting for our flight and he bought the book Fifty Shades Of Grey. I haven’t got a clue why he bought it but he loved the book and read it every day. Me and Dylan managed to get his room key. We’ve both gone in and… made a mess in his book — that’s the PG way of me explaining what happened! Jake eventually found out and went crazy.

“That’s just one crazy story of me and Dylan. We used to throw players’ clothes in the ice bath. Just lots of crazy stuff.”


Tombides was 18 years and six months old when he made his West Ham debut, off the bench in a League Cup match away to Wigan Athletic on September 25, 2012.

“I gave him his debut on the basis he was fit and well at the time,” says Allardyce. “His hair was growing back, his muscles were redeveloping and he was enjoying his training. We didn’t make a big fuss out of it. He was in the squad on merit.”

Moncur had made his own first-team debut for the club one round earlier in the same competition, against Crewe Alexandra, but there was an acceptance from him and his peers that Tombides would have become a first-team regular.

“Big Sam doesn’t mess about,” says Moncur. “He wouldn’t play kids if he didn’t think they were good enough. People might think Dylan playing was out of sympathy but there’s no chance in that. Myself and others were on the bench loads of times but never came on, so it showed what the manager thought of Dylan.”

Four months after that debut, Tombides was back on high-dose chemotherapy and needed a stem-cell transplant twice within eight weeks. He wanted to represent Australia at the Under-20 World Cup in 2013, but the cancer had spread to his liver.

“It looked like Dylan was heading in the right direction with his recovery and then he kept suffering setbacks,” says Allardyce. “He came back three or four times and you can only imagine the chemotherapy he was going through. From Dylan’s point of view, he probably would’ve found it frustrating, the stop-start nature of his recovery, plus feeling pain.”


For Moncur, there is always the lingering thought of what could have been: How many appearances would Tombides have made for West Ham in another world? Would he have played for the national team? What type of parent would he have been? Witnessing his friend die so young has given Moncur perspective on life.

“I was in Scotland, on loan at Partick Thistle, and his mum phoned to say Dylan had passed away,” Moncur recalls. “I had to sit down to process what she told me. When I left West Ham, Dylan was getting better and I thought he was on track to fully recovering. I was in shock but for whatever reason he was taken from us. I know Dylan is in a better place and as much as it’s sad and upsetting, my faith in God has helped me cope as the years have passed.

“No matter how tough life gets, you have to enjoy every day. Time goes so fast. You don’t know when your last day is. That’s what Dylan’s death has taught me. He was an unbelievable player but, more importantly, a brother.”

Sadlier was informed of Tombides’ passing by coaches at the training ground. Ten years on and his daily reminder of Tombides adds extra motivation.

“The hardest part was phoning some of the lads like Elliot and Dan,” he says. “They were the most difficult phone calls I’ve made in my life. That day, me and Dan planned to go to the cinema to watch Spider-Man. I told him what had happened, we decided to still go, so it could help clear our heads, but I couldn’t tell you a single thing that happened in the film.

“A few days after, me, Elliot, and Matthias decided to get tattoos as a tribute to Dylan. When I score a goal, I always kiss mine. He’s always in our thoughts.”

(Top photos: Tombides playing for Australia and a tribute to him in West Ham’s most recent home game/Getty Images)