Chief football writer Marc Iles recalls how he saw events unfold at White Hart Lane on March 17, 2012, as Bolton Wanderers midfielder Fabrice Muamba went into cardiac arrest in an FA Cup quarter final game against Tottenham.
THERE are many things I will never forget about the night I watched Fabrice Muamba collapse on the pitch at White Hart Lane.
The haunted expressions staring back at the touchline or hiding their tearful eyes as a huddle of medical staff fought to save his life, the look of sombre resignation on the face of captain Kevin Davies as he caught my eye on the way back down the tunnel.
The main one, though, is the roar. A guttural noise that I had never heard from a football crowd before or since, the sound of 35,000-plus people actually willing someone to live.
In this climate of concern we all start taking stock of the things that really matter. Football – a game which exists for most supporters as an opportunity to escape and belong to something outside the norm – should not really be at the very top of that list.
On that night, though, the lines blurred. For 17 minutes supporters wearing both club’s colours came together in the most singular and positive way I could possibly imagine.
For those who never had the pleasure of working in the White Hart Lane press box, the view was uniquely flat. A worm’s eye view, if you will.
I was doing co-commentary alongside BBC Radio Manchester’s Phil Kinsella and with the score at 1-1 Gareth Bale broke down the left, closing in on the penalty box, when referee Howard Webb stopped play for a Bolton player who had gone to ground a good 15 yards behind play.
At first I thought it was Nigel Reo-Coker. Phil, ever the professional, quickly put me right, and for a couple of confusing minutes it was tough to see exactly what was happening as players gathered around.
I’d hate to listen back to the inane conversation we must have been having at the time, oblivious to the seriousness of what was unfolding on the pitch.
Once it became clear that he was getting his chest pumped, however, I remember losing any sense of professionalism. I knew Fabrice, he had a son, this was actually happening in front of my eyes.
We now know that Dr Andrew Deaner, who worked at the nearby London Chest Hospital, was watching the game with his brothers and managed to make his way past stewards and on to the pitch to help the medical staff from both clubs.
His direction was crucial as the Bolton player lay “effectively dead” for 78 minutes.
I cannot emphasise enough just how strongly people were willing Fabrice on, singing his name persistently as the CPR continued and the defibrillator was called into play.
But when they finally took him back down the tunnel, which was to my left, absolutely none of the players or staff that followed him towards the ambulance seemed to have any faith that things were going to be OK.
We now know that Muamba had 12 shocks in the ambulance alone to try and restart his heart.
Hospital staff then worked on his for a further 30 minutes before his heart began beating again.
Outside the main doors, me and the Manchester Evening News’s Trevor Baxter had hightailed it down the High Road to take our place at the front of a media scrum that would become a circus as the night rolled on. Our passenger was Dan Houlker, then just a few weeks into his job with the Wanderers’ media team, who must have been wondering what he had got himself into.
Poor Dan had little battery left on his phone and if memory serves he gate-crashed a local bar mitzvah to plug his charger in!
Every media outlet was on the scene and it became a proper exercise in guesswork. At one stage a major TV sports channel I won’t name directly had him sitting up in bed and talking to the doctors, but as the old saying goes, they weren’t wrong for long.
At about 2am I got a text asking me to meet a very well-placed source in the club at a row of shops behind the hospital. In a scene that would have made Woodward and Bernstein proud, I was briefed with the news that I’d feared, and that the odds were not in Fabrice’s favour to last the night.
We made the decision to drive home, reaching Manchester by dawn. I got through my front door just as my youngest son, then just three, was waking up. I won’t lie, I had to fight back a few tears.
The football world was praying for Fabrice’s recovery. It was all anyone could do.
I found out that he has woken up the following day, halfway up a ladder. Real life had indeed taken over once again and I had booked the Monday off to paint my living room. Outside the stadium the messages of good luck stacked up and were still there on matchday when two goals from David Wheater were enough to beat Blackburn Rovers in a game Muamba tried to watch on Match of the Day (but apparently fell asleep).
It proved the end of his playing career but as Muamba recovered he recognised the good he could do – and his example has helped change the way football prepares and deals with cardiac arrests.
Since 2012, thousands of defibrillators have been installed in public places around the UK, partly due to Muamba’s campaigning. The lines between football and ‘real life’ continue to blur.
But in the past few years it is good to see him graduating back to the sport, getting into coaching, working in the media. What a great thing it would be to see him return to football and make it his living once again.
This article was first printed in 2020.
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