Peter Boxell’s son has been missing for 31 years. At times, he says, it has been a “living nightmare”.
Attempts to find Lee – a Sutton United fan who went missing aged 15 – have involved thousands of police hours, a year-long dig in a church graveyard and four Crimewatch appeals. Boxell also started the Missing People choir, which reached the Britain’s Got Talent final in 2017.
During last summer’s transfer window, however, Boxell received further help from an unexpected source.
Italian club Roma are considered trailblazers when it comes to their social media campaigns, having previously featured everything from black screens to the history of the Earth when announcing new player signings.
This summer, they went for a more poignant approach by featuring missing children videos alongside their transfer announcements, with several featuring Lee.
Some fans initially questioned why the club would combine the joy of a new signing with the sadness felt for a missing person, but, remarkably, five children highlighted in their videos were found.
Unfortunately, Lee was not one of those discovered. After years of searching, Boxell now accepts his son may have passed away.
But when Lee’s case was featured on the club’s social media channels, dozens of Roma fans made contact to offer Peter support and wish him well in his search.
He says the response was like a “comfort blanket”.
“It’s difficult to describe, but it makes us feel like we are not alone and not the only ones suffering,” Boxell adds.
“It gives me hope that, if not my son, somebody elsewhere will be recognised from an appeal and reunited with their families.”
The move by Roma was the idea of their head of strategy, Paul Rogers, who says he became “obsessed” with the story of rock band Soul Asylum, whose video for their early 1990s hit song Runaway Train also featured missing children.
“We had built up quite a sizable social media presence and going into the summer transfer window, we thought we had an opportunity to do something more meaningful,” he tells BBC Sport.
“Football on social media can be quite toxic at times, and we thought we could do something that is the antithesis of that and could be embraced by all sorts of fans.”
The reaction from supporters all over the world was overwhelmingly positive, as the Italian club featured 109 cases in 72 different videos across 12 different countries.
The five children found included two from Kenya, two teenage girls from London and a boy from Belgium.
Boxell says: “One being found is brilliant, but five is incredible. It’s an absolutely amazing idea and not something I’d have even dreamed of.
“Lots of kids go to football games, so any new way of getting appeals out about missing kids is worth doing.”
Rogers says it was “nerve-wracking” when he first met the US-based National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children to tell them about how Roma could potentially help.
But after producing a mock-up video using old missing children cases and pointing out Roma’s 16 million social media followers, they were “blown way” by his idea.
He says: “One of the things they said which struck me was, ‘most brands try to distance themselves from something like this because missing children is a very sensitive subject and maybe you don’t want to be associated with it’.
“We said we wanted to help 100%. We felt that even if no children were found, we could still raise awareness of the cases, the issue of missing children and the organisations doing that work.”
More than 140,000 children go missing in the United Kingdom each year, a statistic which Missing People chief executive Jo Youle says is “truly shocking”.
She says the reasons range from problems at home or school, to mental illness and even sexual exploitation.
“The vast majority of kids are found in the first 24-28 hours, and only 1% are still missing a year later,” she says.
Even so, that amounts to 1,400 children. The charity is hoping to double the 10,000 people it helps each year, so the help from Roma was hugely welcome.
In total, the club’s missing children videos were viewed more than nine million times across their social media channels, having worked alongside 12 organisations across the world, including the United States, the UK, Italy, Spain and Kenya. They plan to continue the campaign around any signings they make in January’s transfer window.
“Roma have been a trailblazer with this and have shown how much impact a football club can have,” Youle says. “I hope that it will inspire other clubs to see how much it engages their supporters and makes them proud to be part of a group helping in this way.”
The idea of featuring missing children at the time of a transfer story might jar with some, but it actually takes advantage of two factors unique to football clubs.
When announcing a new signing on their social media channels, clubs instantly have a viral moment, which is a perfect chance to spread a message.
And by recruiting a player from a particular country, they have a channel into a specific audience with a heightened interest.
So when Roma signed Chris Smalling from Manchester United, they knew it would garner more interest from the United Kingdom. Hence why the video featured missing children from England.
The same also applied when Davide Zappacosta joined the club from Chelsea. The first girl from London was found after featuring in the winger’s video.
It was a similar ploy used in the Soul Asylum video, which was tailored according to whether the song was broadcast on the east or west coast of America, or indeed, the UK.
Although it cannot be said definitively that the five missing children were found as a result of featuring in Roma’s videos, Rogers says that by helping raise awareness of the cases, the end result still brought moments of “euphoria” around the club’s offices.
But there was little time to celebrate.
Once a child is found, the legal ‘right to be forgotten’ kicks in. Any trace of their identity must be deleted from their social media accounts.
Any videos featuring that missing child must also be re-cut so they are not included. The move is to ensure they can live a life where they are not stigmatised for going missing in the first place.
Rogers says: “We saw some reaction which said ‘this makes me sad at a time I shouldn’t feel that way’. Others said ‘why not do this at another time?’
“But the whole point was that signings are a viral moment. We could point to a missing child post at any time of the year, but we wouldn’t get as much attention.
“It was quite hard work, but I remember getting that call from Missing People for the first girl found and it was one of the best calls I’ve ever taken. It felt better than winning any match or even the Champions League.
“Everyone was so proud that they worked on something that had an impact, but Roma isn’t responsible for finding five children.
“Our role from day one was to help with the search to find missing children. If we hadn’t done it, would they have been found anyway? Maybe.
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“But how do people find out about a missing child? Most football fans don’t follow Missing People on their Twitter, for example. This takes it to a new audience.”
Whether other clubs would have the same impact as Roma is debatable. Part of the club’s success comes from having an established social media audience which transcends Italian borders.
But having seen how the campaign has drawn fans together, Rogers believes that more clubs could unite to launch a similar campaign for International Missing Children’s Day on 25 May.
“Five children were reunited with their families after Roma’s campaign, but imagine if clubs such as Barcelona or Manchester United or Liverpool all got involved,” he says.
“I would never tell other clubs what they should or shouldn’t do, and most of them do lots of good stuff in the community, but it would be an incredibly powerful thing to do and it would send out a good message.
“I’m not naive enough to think that Roma can change the world on its own, but I do believe that football clubs could change the world together.”
Boxell says the best outcome for his family now is to find Lee’s remains so they can have a proper funeral and start the grieving process.
In the meantime, though, the ability to help others is what keeps him going.
“For 31 years, we have had to live with not knowing what happened to Lee and living in limbo is a terrible thing to deal with,” he says.
“But singing in the choir has given me an outside interest and singing about Lee is quite cathartic, as is spending time with people in a similar situation.
“Out of my loss, something good has come – helping others who also have missing loved ones.
“I don’t know if that was meant to be, but it’s given me comfort knowing I can help others a little bit.”
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