We didn't need a team talk, we did it for Fabrice, claims Bolton boss Coyle
21:57 GMT, 24 March 2012
At 2.16pm Saturday, 36 footballers from the neighbouring Lancastrian towns of Bolton and Blackburn ran on to the pitch at the Reebok Stadium wearing shirts bearing just one name: Muamba. And for a brief period, the fierce tribal rivalry of fans separated by only 12 miles was forgotten.
Together, the 28,000 men, women and children formed a single choir to sing the name of Fabrice
Muamba, the 23-year-old Bolton footballer still seriously ill in the London Chest Hospital after suffering a cardiac arrest while playing at Tottenham seven days earlier.
Muamba’s fight for his life has touched people far beyond this corner of Lancashire, with messages of support arriving from the great footballing citadels of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus.
Fan-fare: Supporters arrived early to take in the sea of shirts left in support of Fabrice Muamba
But it is in Bolton where his absence is felt hardest, where emotions have run unchecked. Before kick-off, fans in the Nat Lofthouse Stand created a mosaic of his name and shirt number: ‘Muamba 6’.
Everyone applauded and again his name echoed across the stadium.
Earlier, supporters had congregated by the players’ entrance at the stadium to study the patchwork of shirts, flowers and cuddly toys, some urging Muamba to make a swift recovery, others promising to keep him in their prayers. It is a shrine to one man’s refusal to yield to apparently hopeless circumstances.
No one, it seems, can easily forget the awful moment when Muamba collapsed to the ground at White Hart Lane last Saturday evening. No one can fail to recall the revelation by one of the doctors who saved his life that Muamba’s heart effectively stopped for 78 minutes.
On Tuesday, Bolton’s players must confront still fresh memories of those moments when they return to Tottenham to play the FA Cup quarter-final that was abandoned that night. But with each passing day the bulletins from the London Chest Hospital, in Bethnal Green, have been received as tokens of hope and inspiration at a club that manager Owen Coyle and chairman Phil Gartside have led with dignity through incalculably difficult times.
Coyle revealed that Muamba had sent a personal message to his team-mates on Friday.
Rivalry means nothing: A Blackburn shirt with a message of support for Fabrice Muamba
Team spirit: Bolton players warm up for the game wearing 'Muamba 6' jerseys
‘Fabrice managed to send a message, through one of his consultants, just to wish the lads well for the game,’ said Coyle. ‘It was great for the lads to hear that, to realise Fabrice is getting better, if slowly.’ Coyle added: ‘The team talk wasn’t long today.’ He had no cause to elaborate;
everyone understood that for Bolton’s players the motivating force was the unseen presence of
Muamba in their midst.
Fittingly, those players delivered with a victory achieved through pride and professional duty that
elevated them from the relegation zone.
‘In a football context, it was an important three points,’ said Coyle. ‘But that pales into insignificance
when compared with Fabrice’s health. Nothing is more important to this club than Fabrice. The support for him across the globe is because he is a gem of a lad. We knew this was going to be an emotionally charged day; as much as we knew we had to play the game our thoughts were still with Fabrice.’
The news of Bolton’s 2-1 win travelled swiftly to Muamba’s hospital bed as Gartside reported the scoreline to the player’s father, Marcel, and his fiance, Shauna Magunda. Gartside, who wore a dark suit and the wearied look of a man who, with Coyle, spent three days’ vigil at the Chest Hospital in the critical hours after Muamba’s collapse, said: ‘Fabrice will be at this club for as long as he wants. We have gone through the full spectrum of emotions and, thankfully, we are still smiling at the end of it.
Two good: David Wheater scored both Bolton goals against Blackburn
‘On Saturday, we were prepared for the worst. We have to remind everybody that Fabrice is still in a serious condition in intensive care but the progress he has made has been fantastic. All the doctors played a part in this.’
Hopefully, the result will have brought a flicker of a smile to a young man popular across the frontiers of football.
Everyone talks of Muamba’s smile, of his generosity of spirit. On a giant screen at the Reebok,
they showed a short film of Muamba’s endeavours in a Bolton shirt. The last image was of him turning
away after a goal, a broad grin across his face. Jack Wilshere, now an England player, remembers arriving at Bolton on loan from Arsenal and being chaperoned by Muamba, who had once been on Arsene Wenger’s staff.
‘Fab showed me around and basically looked after me,’ said Wilshere. ‘He is a leader and genuinely
nice guy. Everyone keep praying.’ Arsenal captain Robin van Persie added, in a series of messages
collated in the programme: ‘What a great guy, always a smile on his face.’
Display: Muamba's name and number were held up by supporters at the Reebok
Bolton captain Kevin Davies, another who has spent countless hours shepherding the news from
the hospital in London, said: ‘It’s tragic that something like this could happen to someone like Fab and we’re all hoping he pulls through.’
At the final whistle, the crowd chanted their appreciation of a team who had played — and won — for
their fallen team-mate. ‘Fabrice Muamba, Fabrice Muamba,’ they sang, as the Bolton players formed a huddle around Coyle. ‘I thanked everyone for their efforts,’ said Bolton’s manager.
‘They were out on their feet at the end, physically and mentally.’
On Saturday, there were no losers at the Reebok Stadium.