x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Tribalism will be cast aside at the Reebok Stadium

Bolton and Blackburn will show that football fans are capable of looking beyond rivalry, temporarily of course.

A well-wisher lays down a shirt with a message to ill Bolton Wanderers' player Fabrice Muamba at the Reebok Stadium in Bolton. Andrew Yates / AFP
A well-wisher lays down a shirt with a message to ill Bolton Wanderers' player Fabrice Muamba at the Reebok Stadium in Bolton. Andrew Yates / AFP

There is one piece of football folklore which can still cause an old cynic like me to well up. At the 1989 FA Cup Final, Liverpool and Everton supporters filled Wembley Stadium with a united chant of "Merseyside", the county in which their divided city stands.

This rare unity between Reds and Blues was a reaction to the Hillsborough disaster five weeks earlier. The message rang loud and clear: we may be football fans but we are also human beings, and we understand there are times to put the tribalism to one side.

Fans of Bolton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers might have their own "Merseyside" moment today, when the two sides clash in Bolton's first match since Fabrice Muamba suffered a cardiac arrest during the FA Cup game against Tottenham Hotspur.

Of course, the scale of suffering in the two incidents is not comparable. Mercifully, Muamba appears to have survived his ordeal. Ninety-six Liverpool fans did not.

The similarity, however, is that Blackburn fans have the opportunity to prove their humanity and decency, and respecting or even joining the tributes to Muamba.

I strongly suspect this will happen. Let me tell you why.

Firstly, the Blackburn Rovers players already have set a great example. Yakubu celebrated his goal against Sunderland on Tuesday by flashing a supportive message on his vest - a gesture so touching that the referee Martin Atkinson decided against showing the mandatory yellow card.

Secondly, I believe Blackburn fans will respect the occasion because it has become almost fashionable to do so. Football fans are competitive beasts, and they hate to be outdone. The behaviour of the Spurs fans on Saturday was widely praised. Blackburn fans will not wish to be outshone in by a bunch of Londoners.

In fact, no club appears to wish to be left out of the Muamba love-in. What began as a sprinkling of non-Bolton memorabilia outside the Reebok Stadium has become a riot of colour as fans seek to ensure their club is represented.

Thirdly, and most importantly, I believe Blackburn fans will show their humanity because … well, because they are human. Newsflash: Most football fans are.

Those who express surprise at the fans' positive reaction to Muamba's distress have clearly not been to enough football matches. A few idiots aside, fans prove they understand the line between tribalism and reality every time we exit the stadium, chatting with our opposite numbers. Ignore the colours. Ignore the club tattoos. We are just people.

Blackburn fans will demonstrate that fact today during the Muamba tributes, before slipping into tribal mode for, hopefully, 90 minutes of blood and thunder, just as the Liverpool and Everton masses did back in 1989 to provide one of the best FA Cup Finals in history.


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