His career at Bramall Lane was brief, but the impact he made on fans of Sheffield United has lasted through the decades.
Mel Rees lost his battle with cancer 23 years ago yesterday, on May 30, 1993. He had waved goodbye to United with a lap of honour at Wembley, before their FA Cup semi-final against Sheffield Wednesday. And weeks later he was gone, aged just 26.
“Watching Mel get so ill was heartbreaking,” Kevin Gage, a former teammate at United, remembers.
“Credit to him, though, he didn’t mope around the place – he spent the time with his family.
“He still used to pop down occasionally, and it was then we realised the severity of his illness. The next few times we saw him he looked a shadow of his former self.”
Pale and gaunt, Rees made the lap around Wembley with applause from both sets of supporters ringing in his ears. It was a moment which transcended sport, and rivalry.
He had just undergone a second operation on the bowel cancer which claimed his life and the late Derek Dooley, then United’s chairman, admitted at the time: “Mel was a bright lad and when the cancer came back, I think he knew what the eventual outcome would be.”
Rees died at the home of his girlfriend, Louise, in Derby.
“Wembley was fantastic for him”, Gage, who played over 100 times for United, added.
“Both sets of supporters, 80,000 fans, stood and applauded him. Football paled in significance while he walked round. It was very brave.
“Quite a few United staff were affected by it - in hindsight, I don’t think it was fantastic preparation for a game. But he deserved his moment in the limelight.
“He was a lively character, as most goalkeepers are, he certainly fitted in well with the United way of life – slightly off-beat and off the wall – and he made some very good friends at Bramall Lane. He is still sadly missed.”
The Welsh goalkeeper arrived at United from West Brom for just £25,000, and played only nine games, but few players have left such a significant mark on a club in such a short space of time.
Alan Kelly, another legendary goalkeeper at United, thought he was arriving at Bramall Lane as cover for Rees and Simon Tracey.
“I didn’t know at the time that Mel was ill,” the former Republic of Ireland ‘keeper added.
“I met him on our return from a pre-season tour; he held out his hand and said ‘don’t worry, it’s not contagious!’
“He was an amazing man, who was sadly taken from us too soon. I will never forget walking off the Wembley pitch after that semi-final defeat to Wednesday, together with Mel.
“That was the only moment in my life which made me realise there were more important things in life than football.”