Nat's not ready for you yet: Bolton fans are willing Muamba to pull through
22:02 GMT, 19 March 2012
Just after lunchtime on Monday a young man walked past the Reebok Stadium wearing a Bolton Wanderers shirt that carried the message: There’s only 1 Gary Speed. Inside the club shop, a teenager waited for the name Muamba to be printed on the back of his team jersey.
Sadly for Bolton, it has been that kind of season.
It was freezing at the Reebok on Monday. It usually is. Nobody who came to lay flowers, cards and tributes to the stricken Fabrice Muamba will have noticed, though.
Moving tributes: Bolton fans show their support for Muamba
As long as Muamba lies ill in a hospital in London, this is a football club – and a town – that waits anxiously for good news.
Dave Blackburn, of the Bolton Wanderers Supporters Association, said: ‘We feel like we are stuck in limbo. When Gary Speed died, it was tragic and sudden. This time we don’t know what we are dealing with. In some ways that makes it harder. We can only hope that Fabrice comes through.’
Despite the location of the Reebok six miles outside the town, Bolton is a club that still connects easily with its community. It is, of course, a community that has known tragedy before.
Speed, a much-loved former captain, died in December, while 11 days ago the club marked the 66th anniversary of the Burnden Park disaster, when 33 supporters lost their lives in a crush at the Railway End of the club’s old stadium in March 1946. A supermarket stands on the site now.
Community club: Sadly, Bolton have known tragedy before
This time, trauma has struck Bolton from the inside. Muamba may have started his life in Zaire almost 24 years ago but, after three-and-a-half years at the club, he is very much part of a group of young players manager Owen Coyle hopes will take the club forwards.
‘He is one of ours,’ added Blackburn. ‘Not as technically gifted as some but one of the ones we know is totally committed to the club.
‘His shooting is terrible, usually hits the corner flag. But we love him, even for that. He is integral to us, one of us.’
On Monday morning at the Reebok, the well-wishers began to arrive before breakfast, wrapped up against the wind rolling down off nearby Winter Hill.
Part of the furniture: Muamba has been at Bolton for three-and-a-half years
/03/19/article-2117329-123D2BA8000005DC-879_634x422.jpg” width=”634″ height=”422″ alt=”United in support: Fans from several clubs have left messages outside the Reebok” class=”blkBorder” />
United in support: Fans from several clubs have left messages outside the Reebok
Happily, he did not feel the need to take to Twitter to tell the world of his pain.
Moments later, an elderly couple shuffled forward arm in arm. The lady stooped to lay flowers, briefly rested her head on her husband’s shoulder and turned back towards the car park.
This was human kindness at its most naked and real. Those who say that football has lost touch with its public should have been there.
‘I saw the United one,’ said Blackburn. ‘We hate United more than anyone. I don’t feel like that today, though. I was touched by that.’ In hospital in London, Muamba continues a fight he may not yet win. Indications of improvement from the club on Monday were welcome but it is clear the 23-year-old remains gravely ill.
Hope: There were signs of improvement in Muamba's condition on Monday
His team-mates remain hopeful that his spirit will help him through. They know, though, that it is not that simple.
At the club’s training ground, five miles north on the M61, some of the Bolton players gathered seeking solace in company on Monday lunchtime. Others preferred to stay at home with their families.
Tuesday night’s game against Aston Villa has been postponed and Saturday’s fixture with Blackburn may go the same way. It is at times like this that we realise how young these men are.
Pulling together: Bolton's game on Tuesday night has been postponed
On the field, Bolton face a huge fight this season to retain their Barclays Premier League status. That still matters. Whatever happens, this club must move on eventually.
Right now, though, Bolton Wanderers and the community it enriches will simply pray for better news.
In January 2011, Bolton lost their favourite son, Nat Lofthouse, at the age of 85. Perhaps the most poignant message laid outside the Reebok said: ‘Hang in there, Fabrice. Nat is not ready for you yet.’