Bolton win for Muamba on emotional day
"It is not a football story," Bolton chairman Phil Gartside said. "It is a Muamba story." It is an extraordinary human tale, about the son of an asylum seeker and a political refugee, about a father and a fiancé, about a footballer whose life was almost tragically curtailed.
It is a story of a unique week. On Saturday March 17, Fabrice Muamba was effectively dead for 78 minutes after suffering a cardiac arrest on the White Hart Lane pitch. Seven days later - some scary, some surprising - Bolton returned to the football field on a wonderfully life-affirming occasion. People are not normally celebrated when they are still with us; not like this, anyway.
Instead, it was a tribute with a difference, with a result that could prove among the most significant in Bolton's season while everyone present was nonetheless all too aware that football is not the be-all and end-all. "There is nothing more important at this club than Fabrice," manager Owen Coyle said. "He is not just a team-mate or a colleague, he is a friend and a gem of a lad. That is why the support he has had is across the board."
It was, too, across the front of the front of the Reebok Stadium, covering the territory between the main reception and the players' entrance. It was an ersatz tapestry from scarves and shirts, representing not only Bolton but local rivals big (the two Manchester and Merseyside clubs) and small (Accrington, Bury and Rochdale), from fans of clubs as different as Real Madrid and Hartlepool United, who inhabit different countries and different worlds.
There were shirts placed there by supporters of Netherlands and Turkey and Wasps, a rugby club based the best part of 200 miles south. While, before kick-off, fans formed a mosaic in the Lower East Stand, cards raised above their heads reading "Muamba 6", this was something else, something spontaneous, disorganised and rather moving. Supporters on their way into the ground were drawn to it, simply to stand, think and take the occasional photograph.
The choruses of Muamba's name that followed throughout a derby with a difference came not just from the Bolton faithful, but their Blackburn counterparts. It was a shift in footballing culture, enmity making way for appreciation.
"The players and staff conducted themselves in a tremendous manner as did not only Bolton Wanderers supporters but Blackburn Rovers supporters," Coyle added. "The conduct of the whole stadium was exemplary."
Having provided statesmanlike leadership off the field with his eloquence in front of a microphone, Coyle had a different challenge: to rally a team who feared they had seen a team-mate die. He received unexpected assistance, Bolton being buoyed by a good-luck message from their stricken team-mate in the London Chest Hospital. "Fabrice managed to send a message on Friday through one of the consultants wishing the lads well," Coyle explained. "It was great that the lads were able to hear that. We still feel we have to represent him in a right manner in a football match and I think we did that."
They did. As Steve Kean admitted, Bolton were much the superior side in the first half and merited their victory. They struck twice in six minutes through David Wheater, who, having waited 14 months for a league goal since signing from Middlesbrough, suddenly found himself the possessor of a brace. They had certain similarities, Wheater escaping Scott Dann both times and heading in a Martin Petrov cross, after a corner was not cleared, and then a Ryo Miyaichi corner.
"We scored two goals and could have scored four or five," Coyle said. Darren Pratley, twice, and Mark Davies were particular culprits. It almost cost Bolton because Blackburn, denied a penalty when Junior Hoilett went down under Gretar Steinsson's challenge, got a goal back when Steven Nzonzi headed in Morten Gamst Pedersen's long throw. Yet with Yakubu's radar uncharacteristically awry, Bolton, though mentally and physically tired, held on.
Their reward is to leapfrog QPR and return to the comparative safety of 17th place. "If, God willing, Fabrice can come back to his level as a football player, we have to make sure he is a Premier League player," Coyle said. It is Bolton's cause, one about far more than the millions in television revenue it is worth. It is not a football story, but football can provide an appropriate ending.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Martin Petrov. The left winger proved the most incisive player on the pitch, troubling Jason Lowe and twice coming close to scoring himself. The Bulgarian has long struggled for consistency but retains the sort of quality Coyle appreciates.
BOLTON VERDICT: They visit Wolves next in the league and have the opportunity to pull themselves further away from the bottom three. Their profligacy is a problem and David Ngog's lack of goals remains an issue, but he suits a system in which others excel. Yet with a run-in that, on paper, is rather easier than Wigan's and QPR's, they ought to stay up if their key players can remain fit.
BLACKBURN VERDICT: Six points clear of the relegation zone on Tuesday night, Rovers have been reminded that it is not that simple to survive. Their hopes rest to a huge degree on Yakubu and Hoilett. With Christopher Samba sold and Gael Givet injured, Scott Dann's poor performance must be a concern. Further forward, Rovers improved when the ineffectual Mauro Formica came off and David Dunn was introduced.