A balaclava-clad Italian hooligan who "destroyed" the life of a Liverpool supporter and his family in a "brutal and vicious" attack ahead of a Champions League tie has been jailed for three-and-a-half years.
Roma supporter Simone Mastrelli (30) picked out Irish father-of-three Sean Cox (53) from the scarf he was wearing and knocked him unconscious to the ground with a single blow to the face near Anfield.
Speaking outside court, Mr Cox's wife Martina said that while the jail sentence was welcome, "he has given Sean and our family a life sentence".
Mastrelli, a married man with children, was at the fore of a group of between 50 and 60 "ultras" in distinctive clothing with many covering their heads and faces and some carrying belts in their hands as weapons.
As Mr Cox, from Dunboyne, Co Meath, lay motionless, the defendant quickly disappeared into the crowd and then removed his balaclava and hood before he "callously" went into the stadium and watched the match last April 24.
He flew back to Italy the next day and remained at large until he was arrested last October following painstaking enquiries by Merseyside Police to identify his movements from CCTV.
Dublin-born Mr Cox suffered catastrophic head injuries after he was punched by Mastrelli ahead of the semi-final first leg.
He has been recovering at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dun Laoghaire after he spent four-and-a-half weeks at the Walton Centre in Liverpool, a specialist neurological unit.
Mastrelli appeared from custody at Preston Crown Court yesterday and entered a guilty plea to unlawfully and maliciously inflicting grievous bodily harm on Mr Cox. A separate count of violent disorder was allowed to lie on file.
In sentencing, Judge Brown said footage showed Mastrelli and another Roma fan, Filippo Lombardi, approaching Mr Cox, adding that they must have "picked him out because of his distinctive red and white scarf".
He said life-long Liverpool fans Mr Cox and his brother Martin "posed no threat to any-body" and that their day ended in "appalling circumstances".
Addressing Mastrelli, the judge added: "You then went into the stadium to enjoy the match - which was particularly callous given what had just happened and what you had done to Mr Cox."
Lombardi (21) was cleared of inflicting grievous bodily harm on Mr Cox last October, though he was jailed for three years for violent disorder.
A third man, Daniele Sciusco (29), from Rome, admitted violent disorder ahead of the match and was jailed for two-and-a-half years last August.
Footage of the incident in Walton Breck Road was played in court and shows Mastrelli initially aggressively confronting Mr Cox with his arms raised.
Lombardi then raises a belt as Mastrelli moves back and then, from Mr Cox's right-hand side, he forcibly punches him in the face. A witness described the attack as "sudden and unprovoked" and a "sickening sight".
Keith Sutton, prosecuting, said Mastrelli had flown in from Germany with a friend and later met up with other Roma fans, including Lombardi and Sciusco, at Manchester Airport railway station.
Mastrelli was already seen to be wearing a balaclava shortly after the group arrived at Liverpool Lime Street Station just before 5.30pm.
They were seen in nearby Hanover Street about 40 minutes later, with a number of them wearing their hoods up and with their faces covered, before the group of up to 60 walked towards Anfield.
A witness noticed the group in Venables Street, close to Walton Breck Road, and thought they were "angry" and concluded "there was going to be some trouble".
Shortly afterwards, Martin Cox heard "a lot of noise" in Walton Breck Road in what he described as "shouting and chanting but not in a good way".
"He recalls turning to his brother to discover he was already on the floor," said Mr Sutton. "He had not seen what happened but, as he attempted to assist him, he too was kicked and fell to the floor."
Sean Cox was transferred to the National Rehabilitation Hospital on October 3 with a "profound" brain injury.
"He is unable to communicate his needs, wants or wishes. He cannot walk and needs assistance with all activities of daily living," said Mr Sutton. "The reality is that he is unlikely to live independently again."
Mastrelli has since written a letter of apology to the family, and the defence said he was genuinely remorseful.