Published: 12:00, 27 June 2014
Footballer George Howard - who was left fighting for his life after an accident in South Africa - has thanked everyone for their support as he arrived home in Rainham.
The ex-Gills keeper was in a coma for 16 days after falling off the back of a pick-up truck and suffering life-threatening head injuries.
George, 20, was enjoying a holiday with some of his former Charlton teammates, staying with friends in Plettenberg Bay.
They were on their way home from a restaurant when George was thrown from the vehicle after it hit a pothole.
He suffered a fractured skull and bleeds on his brain. He was taken to hospital and immediately underwent life-saving surgery.
George spent more than two weeks on life support and had two further operations. On Friday, he was able to fly back to the UK, just 14 days after coming off the ventilator.
He is now recovering at the home he shares with mum Marion and dad Mark in Chichester Close.
He said: "I'm so happy to be home. It was such a relief to walk through the front door. I want to thank everyone for their support. It has been overwhelming.
"I also want to thank the surgeons who saved my life and the nurses who looked after me."
While George was in hospital his friends Martin Di Fede and Aaron Burrett set up a fundraising page.
Initially it was to help pay for George's medical care, but when it emerged this was being met by his insurance policy, the fundraising continued to help George's parents stay with him in South Africa and to help pay for his rehabilitation. Almost £14,000 has been raised so far.
Dad Mark, a cabbie at Vokes Taxis, said: "We can't thank people enough. It has been incredible.
"We want to thank Martin and Aaron for setting up the page, George's godfather Phil Harrington for flying out to South Africa, Phil Clarke for his support while we were out there, all the drivers and staff at Vokes Taxis, George’s agent Bobby Bowry who has been unbelievable, and everyone who has sent texts, called or donated."
"Seeing your only child on life support has been a nightmare that we didn't think we were going to wake up from..." - father Mark Howard
Among those who have donated are George's former school The Howard in Rainham and his former clubs, Bromley FC and Charlton Athletic.
George joined Charlton's youth academy at the age of 16 on a two-year scholarship. He then spent a year at Bromley before signing for Gills at the start of the 2013/14 season, as Stuart Nelson's understudy.
Mark, 46, said: "Gillingham have been fantastic. Paul Scally has been on the phone twice a week and I've had calls and messages from Stuart Nelson, Martin Allen, Danny Kedwell and Akinfenwa.
"Danny Kedwell was the first person to visit George, just a few hours after he got home."
Gills player Bradley Dack and assistant manager Andy Hessenthaler played in a fundraising match for George organised by his former teammates Richmond Kissi and manager Darren Anslow.
Former Liverpool and Charlton player Jonjo Shelvey, now with Swansea City, flew back to the UK from a holiday in Portugal to take part in the match.
Mark added: "You don't realise until a crisis how popular George is. It is overwhelming and emotional.
"Seeing your only child on life support has been a nightmare that we didn't think we were going to wake up from. But all the bad emotions are out of the way now, it is just tears of joy.
"Our dream when we flew out to South Africa was to bring George home alive. It has been only 21 days since he came off the ventilator. The doctors said he has recovered so quickly because he is young and fit."
It could take up to 18 months for George to fully recover from the accident but he is already talking about getting back on the pitch.
He said: "I'm looking forward to getting back on my feet again. I hope to play football again but I don't know at what level.
"I'm also hoping to go back to South Africa to finish my holiday."
Mark added: "George may never play football again, but it does not matter. Life is more important than football.
"If there is one thing I would advise people it is not to go abroad without travel insurance. His insurance cost £46 and the care he has received has cost over £100,000."
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