This article titled “No ordinary win for Bolton as they dig deep in Fabrice Muamba tribute” was written by Daniel Taylor at the Reebok Stadium, for The Observer on Saturday 24th March 2012 21.23 UTC
At the game’s final whistle every Bolton Wanderers player, the substitutes, the coaching staff, the masseurs, the doctors, the kit-men, even Lofty the Lion, came together for a group huddle. What a week it has been for everyone in that circle and what a shift in emotion from the excruciating lows of White Hart Lane to the exhilarating highs of a victory that can be dedicated to Fabrice Muamba.
They were chanting his name as soon as the 2-1 defeat of Blackburn Rovers was confirmed. In fact, they had spent most of the afternoon serenading in absentia the man lying 250 miles away in intensive care. Then Owen Coyle came up the stairs to the pressroom and was asked whether he could put his emotions into words. “With difficulty,” he replied.
For the first time, there was the flicker of a smile from the Bolton manager. By that point the chairman, Phil Gartside, had already rung Muamba’s father, Marcel, to let him know the score and ask him, when the moment is right, to tell his son the good news. In the morning, Bolton had taken a call from one of the consultants at the London chest hospital. Muamba, it transpired, had asked for a message to be passed on, wishing the team luck.
But there was no triumphalism. Coyle looked shattered, mostly. So much emotional energy had been used up and so much raw effort had gone into winning this match. “The team-talk wasn’t long today,” he said. “We had to go out there and represent Fabrice.” They did so with distinction. “They were out on their feet at the end, physically and mentally,” Coyle continued.
Steve Kean, the Blackburn manager, talked of Bolton’s players being more pumped up than his own, playing with “a spring in their step”. In years to come, there will be no asterisk beside the result to direct us to everything surrounding this match. The record books will simply state that Bolton Wanderers won a derby and relegation six-pointer. Yet it felt so much more besides.
They could easily have overdone it, laid it on a little too thickly and over-indulged in all the emotion that has been swirling round since Muamba was suddenly, almost inexplicably, lying face down during their FA Cup tie against Tottenham last weekend, so still and at such an angle it was very quickly apparent this might be something incomprehensibly awful.
Instead, Bolton pitched it just about right from the moment, a few minutes before kick-off, when the supporters in the Nat Lofthouse Stand lifted thousands of pieces of white, blue and red card to create a mosaic reading “Muamba 6” and a tribute started on the large screen. Here was Muamba tackling, running, scoring, laughing, smiling. There was the goal at QPR on the first day of the season and the big, toothy grin in front of the away end. Then it cut to pictures of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and some of the other category-A footballers who have pulled on T-shirts bearing Muamba slogans this week.
It was emotional, yes, and understandably so when one of their own was technically dead for 78 minutes last Saturday. But this was no mawk-fest.
The mood has changed at Bolton with every medical bulletin. Fear and panic have turned into an emotional form of relief, which, in turn, has become gratitude and something almost celebratory, though always cautious.
More than anything, they were just glad this was not a very different occasion, that there was no one lining up in black armbands and it was a minute’s applause rather than funereal silence before the kick-off.
What struck you outside was the sheer range of football shirts that had been left on the new floral carpet that has sprung up. There was the garish orange that will always be synonymous with the Holland team. You could make out the crescent moon and star of a Turkey shirt. There was a Wasps rugby jersey. Every primary school in the Bolton area seemed to have sent in their own artwork. American and Japanese television crews flitted around. Inside the ground, even the substitutes’ bibs had the number “6” emblazoned on the back.
David Wheater put away two thumping headers and there was good fortune on Bolton’s side, too, considering the moment, with the game scoreless, when Gretar Steinsson brought down Junior Hoilett inside the penalty area and play was waved on.
Blackburn had more than half an hour to conjure up an equaliser after a third headed goal, this time from Steven Nzonzi. Bolton, however, put absolutely everything into it.
The abiding memory for many people will be what followed at the end, but maybe even more so the tributes before. Labi Siffre wrote Something Inside So Strong on the back of a 1985 television documentary that showed white soldiers shooting at black children at the height of apartheid.
Almost 20 years on, it is being picked up in football as a symbol of togetherness. Celtic played it as a tribute to Neil Lennon after he had been targeted with death threats last year.
Now it was Bolton’s turn and their choice of song captured the moment perfectly. The message is to keep going, be strong. Muamba, you imagine, will like that.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010