Mansfield Town defender Joe Riley opens up on losing his son at birth

By Neil JohnstonBBC Sport
Mansfield Town defender Joe Riley celebrates after his side's League Two win over Bradford City on 25 January 2020
Mansfield is Riley's sixth club after playing for Bolton, Bury, Oxford, Shrewsbury and Plymouth

If you, or someone you know, have been affected by any issues raised in this article, support and information is available at BBC Action Line.

It was only a few hours. A chance to say hello to their longed-for son, Leo Joseph. Hold him, kiss him, tell him how much they loved him. And then say goodbye.

Footballer Joe Riley and his fiancee Kayleigh were thrilled to discover she was pregnant again after several miscarriages.

All appeared to be going well.

"After 15 or 16 weeks we discovered it was a boy and we chose his name quickly," says Riley, a full-back at League Two Mansfield Town.

"We started decorating Leo's room, got all his furniture, ordered the pram. When it's your first you go mad.

"We were shopping every day to buy him new outfits, I bought Leo football boots."

Twenty-six weeks into her pregnancy, Kayleigh was rushed to hospital where she learned that the baby boy she had been carrying was stillborn.external-link

Leo was placed in a 'cuddle cot', a cold unit with a basket that stops the baby's body deteriorating, allowing the couple as much time as they needed to say goodbye to their precious boy.

Here Riley, 29, opens up on the harrowing experience of losing his son at birth - and the overwhelming joy of becoming a father to two healthy children since.

"We like to think Leo lives on in both of them," he adds.

Joe Riley (centre) celebrates scoring for Shrewsbury Town in a League One win at Old Athletic on 3 September 2016
Joe Riley (centre) celebrates scoring a goal for Shrewsbury Town in League One in 2016

'An emotional struggle'

Having been part of Bolton Wanderers' youth set-up since the age of seven, Riley signed professional terms with the club in 2011.

Aged 20, he was handed his Premier League debut by Owen Coyle and went on to make nine first-team appearances, including one against Manchester United at Old Trafford in January 2012.

Riley's progress was hampered by a series of setbacks, including a serious knee injury in July 2013 which ruled him for several months.

By the summer of 2016 he was at League One Shrewsbury, via a loan spell at Oxford and a stint at League Two Bury.

Getting regular game-time under Paul Hurst, Riley was enjoying life at Shrewsbury and it was while he was with the Shrews, in September 2017, that Kayleigh revealed she was pregnant with Leo.

"We were both excited because up to that point it had been a struggle emotionally," says Riley.

"We went through quite a lot of miscarriages, six or seven. We had no problems in terms of Kayleigh getting pregnant - it was just getting past that seven to eight week stage of the pregnancy.

"We got through it this time and everything was going really well."

In March 2018 everything changed.

Facts about pregnancy loss

  • In the UK, one in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage - with most happening early before 12 weeks
  • Miscarriage is the loss of a pregnancy during the first 23 weeks
  • About one in 250 births is a stillbirth, when a baby is born dead after 24 weeks

'If love could have saved you, you would have lived forever'

It was October 2014 when the couple met in a Manchester bar on the footballer's birthday night out.

"I offered to buy Kayleigh a drink and she accepted," recalls Riley. "We've been together ever since."

Kayleigh, a fashion and lifestyle blogger, and Riley began making plans for the future and soon bought a house together in Worsley, Salford.

"We got two dogs and it was kind of the next process to have a baby," he adds. "Throughout all the miscarriages, Kayleigh picked herself up and got on with life. She's much stronger than me."

On 8 March 2018, Leo was stillborn at Royal Bolton Hospital.

"Kayleigh had not felt a kick for a couple of days. Our hearts started racing and we rushed to hospital," says Riley.

"She had a scan and that's when we found out Leo was no longer with us. We broke down. It's one of the worst things you can go through."

Leo was placed in a special cot in one of the hospital's bereavement rooms where the couple got to say goodbye to him privately.

"We spent the night with Leo, dressed him in a little outfit, put his little hat on and talked to him," says Riley. "We got to do his hand prints and we wrote him a letter which said 'you'll always be in our hearts'.

"We had just lost Leo but to actually spend time with him was so comforting."

Asked what advice he would give to couples going through a similar experience, Riley adds: "Just be there for one another and talk about it.

"We speak about Leo all the time and have a little cry. Don't bottle it up.

"I did at first. I went to training thinking 'I don't want to talk about it'. As time went on, I spoke about it a little bit more and it made me feel better."

'Leo's memory lives on'

In the two-and-half-years since losing Leo, the couple, now married, have welcomed 17-month-old Jace and one-month-old Mila into the world.

"I remember holding Jace and crying my heart out," says Riley, who was at Plymouth Argyle when he was born in June 2019.

Baby Leo's memory lives on.

On his birthday, the couple light a candle next to his picture at the family home.

They have a memory box containing Leo's ashes, while his hand prints are in a frame.

The couple embarked on a 45-mile walk from Worsley to Blackpool in his memory which raised £7,000 to build another bereavement room at Royal Bolton Hospital - a thank you to the staff who comforted and supported them at a traumatic time.

Footballer Joe Riley, his wife, Kayleigh, and children Jace (left) and Mila at home with a picture of Leo, who was stillborn, in the background
Joe, Kayleigh, Jace (left) and Mila at home with a picture of Leo in the background

"When Jace and Mila get older they will probably point to Leo's picture and ask 'who is that?'" adds Riley, who is currently recovering from a knee injury and will miss Mansfield's FA Cup first-round tie at Sunderland on Saturday.

"Kayleigh and I will say 'it's your older brother who is watching over you'."

If you, or someone you know, have been affected by any issues raised in this article, support and information is available at BBC Action Line.

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