Fabrice Muamba died, came back and greated his fans
The songs began, just as they had at White Hart Lane six weeks ago, at the southern corner of the ground. This time, though, they were songs of joy rather than songs of suffering
The congregation had taken its seats well in advance of the start of the service. At seven minutes to eight, it began. A familiar refrain. One of the old favourites. “Fabrice Muamba!” Clap-clap, clap, clap, clap. “Fabrice Muamba!”
The man himself took his first faltering steps onto the green grass of home, blinking into the dusk. He was greeted by the sight and sound of 22,000 men, women and children on their feet, applauding him. Singing his name. On the big screen, the words ‘Welcome back, Fabrice’ served a dual meaning. Muamba blinked once, twice. The third time, there were tears in his eyes.
Despite the high level of interest in Muamba’s first appearance at the Reebok Stadium since his cardiac arrest on March 17, Bolton had wanted to keep this occasion low-key. There was no lavish floral tribute, no mawkish video montage.
This was meant to be a homecoming, not a thanksgiving. Even the match day programme buried away the news at the foot of page 47.
Ostensibly, Muamba was there to greet the fans, not the other way around.
That was never going to happen. Many fans at the ground last night had also been there when Muamba had fallen. At the time, nobody dared say the word, to lend voice to the thought that was swirling around everybody’s heads. But the world knew immediately. Fabrice Muamba was dying on the White Hart Lane pitch.
Harry Redknapp knew. “I’ll never forget seeing him getting wheeled down that tunnel,” he said last night. “I didn’t think we’d see him again. Nor did any of the people that were there. Nobody gave him a chance.”
So to see him here was the culmination of a sequence of events that medical science can explain, but only the tenderness of the human spirit can really appreciate.
From first to last, he was applauded. He was cheered as he entered the Reebok Stadium at around 7pm last night, beaming from ear to ear as his fiancée Shauna took photographs. After greeting staff at the stadium, he made his way to the home dressing room, where every member of the team embraced him. He met the Tottenham players who had alerted the paramedics so quickly to his plight, as well as manager Harry Redknapp.
“Fantastic,” Redknapp said later. “Absolutely brilliant. Seeing him smiling, seeing him alive, was just wonderful.”
There was a short interview with Sky Sports. “This is a special place,” said Muamba. “The support has been overwhelming, and I am just grateful for that. I am getting stronger every day. I am just happy to be able to speak to people again and walk freely.”
Muamba revealed that he still has six or seven boxes of cards from well-wishers to read. “I am grateful for that,” he said. “It stays in my mind every single day. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. The whole country has been overwhelming.”
There are those who take the view that this incident serves as a reminder of the essential flippancy of football, a riposte to Bill Shankly. This, in itself, is unarguable. The game is never more important than life or death. Nobody should ever lose his life doing something as frivolous as playing sport.
But to witness, to hear, to feel the simple, unalloyed joy at the Reebok last night was to be uplifted by football. To be humbled, to be part of something bigger. Medical miracles such as Muamba’s are far from unique, but there was something unprecedented about the way football has united around this particular triumph against the odds. Only a game? No. More than a game.
One can only imagine how Muamba, a deeply religious man, feels about the whole experience. Everywhere he goes he is feted as a hero, but not for his feats on the pitch. For the rest of his life he is likely to be remembered for an incident he does not.
But it was a deeply important moment for all of us. Though Bolton manager Owen Coyle said afterwards that it was still far too soon to establish whether Muamba would play again, seeing him in a football stadium, rather than on a hospital bed, was a watershed. It was the point at which he ceased to be a patient and became a footballer again.
Whether you prayed aloud, prayed with a hashtag, prayed silently to yourself, or simply crossed your fingers and poured your hope into the ether, this was the scenario everyone all envisaged. Fabrice Muamba was returned to the bosom of football again. And for that alone, we should all be thankful.