x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Strained Bolton raise a smile for Fabrice Muamba

Fans of all sorts, not just from Bolton, descended on the Wanderers home game against Blackburn, with one cheer on their lips: "Fabrice Muamba!"

Bolton players warm up wearing "Muamba 6" jerseys prior to their home match against Blackburn.
Bolton players warm up wearing "Muamba 6" jerseys prior to their home match against Blackburn.

An observer not familiar with the remarkable recovery this week of Fabrice Muamba might have been forgiven for believing the Bolton Wanderers midfielder had actually passed away on Saturday, such was the emotion and solemnity on show by the sea of football shirts.

Bolton's first game since Muamba collapsed following a cardiac arrest last Saturday was seen by the biggest crowd of the season, a capacity 26,901. They were joined Saturday joined by a large media contingent in the unseasonably warm Lancashire sunshine.

A television reporter asked a child in a Bolton shirt if he could possibly re-lay his scarf by the ever expanding carpet of football paraphernalia and flowers near the Reebok Stadium's book of remembrance.

"Got it," affirmed his cameraman after the child did as requested.

From Madrid to Wolverhampton, Lionel Messi to David Beckham, the story has enveloped and consumed football in a wave of condolence and commiseration which overshadowed stories reporting the actual loss of life.

There have been accusations of public mawkishness and maudlin musings.

"I couldn't open the papers this week without crying," said the Boltonian John Main.

"Muamba isn't our biggest star, but you notice when he's not there. He's been a great for us, he breaks up play, gets in faces and gets the tackles in. I just hope to see him play in a Bolton shirt again."

His son, Adam, said he was "surprised at how big the story has been" before turning his attention back to the less important issue of results on the pitch.

"I hope that what has happened somehow lifts the players."

Phil Gartside, the Bolton chairman, said in a pre-matcn interview he "felt privileged to have been in the middle of it".

"We have gone through the full capacity of emotions and thankfully, we are smiling at the end of it."

The case has served to unite an often divided and divisive football community.

One goodwill message outside the stadium read "Football United", while shirts from Bolton's often detested rivals, Manchester United, Wigan Athletic and Bury, were also prevalent. One of the most prominent messages was a placard from the local Zakariyya Mosque. A tiny percentage of Bolton's 15.8 per cent Muslim population watch Bolton live.

The Muamba tribute continued inside the stadium.

Fifty minutes before kick-off, both sets of players and match officials warmed up in shirts bearing "Muamba 6".

Seven minutes before kick-off, a video screen showed the images of support received globally and highlights of Muamba's best Bolton moments.

As the players entered the field, 5,000 home fans held up cards spelling out "Muamba 6" in a mosaic which filled a lower tier of one of the stands.

The crowd applauded non-stop and the players soon joined them before a chant of "Fabrice Muamba" broke out, not just among home fans but the 6,000 Blackburn fans who had travelled 12 miles south across the west Lancashire moors.

Pitch-side advertising hoardings read: "Faith - Football - Family". The Bolton players embraced in an extended hug.

The normal hostility was eventually resumed when the Blackburn fans booed the announcement of the Bolton team.

Steve Kean, the Blackburn manager, had told his players to "play the game, not the occasion".

Fans sang "Fabrice Muamba" after both of David Wheater's first-half headers and at the conclusion of an emotional, 2-1 victory.

“In a football context, it’s a great end to the week to get three points, but the perfect end will be for Fabrice to come out of that hospital better with that big smile of his,” said Owen Coyle, the Bolton manager.

Bolton's players had risen as their fans had hoped, with the former player Phil Brown describing it as a "great day".

They will need several more if they are to stay up, but relegation had not really seemed that important this week.