Bradley Lowery, the football mascot whose beaming smile touched thousands of people around the world, has died after a battle with a rare cancer.
The six-year-old Sunderland fan struck up a close friendship with star striker Jermain Defoe after he was diagnosed with neuroblastoma.
In a statement on the family’s Facebook page, Bradley’s mother Gemma Lowery said: “M y brave boy has went with the angels today 07/07/17 at 13:35, in mammy and daddies arms surrounded by his family.
“He was our little superhero and put the biggest fight up but he was needed else where.
“There are no words to describe how heart broken we are.
“Thank you everyone for all your support and kind words. Sleep tight baby boy and fly high with them angel.”
Sunderland led the sporting tributes to their young fan, describing him as “an inspiration”.
The club said they extended their love to his parents Gemma and Carl and his brother Kieran.
A statement said: “Bradley captured the hearts and minds of everyone at our club with his indomitable spirit, tremendous courage and beautiful smile, which could light up even the darkest of rooms.
“Despite battling neuroblastoma for much of his all too short life, he demonstrated a bravery and fortitude beyond his years that humbled us all.
“He was truly an inspiration. His heart-warming friendship with players and staff alike epitomised the impact this wonderful little boy had on everyone he met.
“He had a special relationship with Jermain Defoe and their feelings for each other were evident for all to see.
“Jermain, naturally, is heartbroken. Bradley’s story not only touched our club and our fans, but also the wider football community.
“Football can be a powerful force for good and our sport came together to embrace Bradley’s fight in a unique way.”
Bradley and Defoe were pictured snuggled up together at the youngster’s home in Blackhall, County Durham last week after the little boy had a party in bed as a way of saying goodbye.
As Bradley continued to fight for life, Defoe broke down in tears on Thursday at a press conference with his new club, Bournemouth, when he was asked about their special bond.
The Premier League star said: “There is not a day that goes past where I do not wake up in the morning and check my phone or think about little Bradley because his love is genuine and I can see it in his eyes.
“It is special.”
Bradley was a mascot for Sunderland several times last season and found a place in the hearts of thousands of football fans around the world.
Supporters of different clubs made banners and chanted his name at games.
He was an England mascot at Wembley when Defoe scored on his return to the Three Lions side, and the striker was guest of honour at a huge party thrown for Bradley’s sixth birthday in May.
Supporters had hoped a massive fundraising effort last year could get him to the United States for pioneering treatment, but his heartbroken family announced at Christmas that his cancer was terminal.
They kept his many well-wishers around the world up to date by using social media and in his final days his mother, Gemma, revealed that Bradley’s health was deteriorating quickly.
England goalkeeper Jack Butland posted on Twitter: “so sad to hear the news of @Bradleysfight passing but what an incredibly tough and inspirational person.”
Former England striker Stan Collymore said the football authorities should create a lasting tribute to the little boy.
He wrote on Twitter: “Would love to think @FA and @premierleague could mark @Bradleysfight by way of a trophy or award to commemorate an incredible life.”
Bradley’s family also had close links with Everton after the club pledged £200,000 towards his treatment when he was mascot for the match between Sunderland and the Toffees.
He went on to be a mascot for the Merseyside club too.
Chairman Bill Kenwright said: ”One of football’s all-time greats. We are so privileged to have known him…and will always be proud that he chose us as his second club.
”We send our loving thoughts to his mam and dad and his family…plus those who were inspired by him throughout the world of football. Bradley Lowery. There’s only one Bradley Lowery.”
Liverpool FC tweeted: ”Bradley was an inspiration to everyone. Our thoughts are with you all at this sad time. May he rest in peace.”
Former England striker and Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker posted: “Terribly sad to hear that little Bradley Lowery has passed away. A warrior and an inspiration to the end. RIP Bradley.”
Football’s world governing body FIFA also added its own tribute on Twitter, saying: “Today, the football world lost one of its bravest fans. Rest in peace, Bradley Lowery.”