Some 32,000 supporters went to White Hart Lane on Saturday to enjoy an FA Cup quarter-final and departed in shock an hour early fearing they had witnessed a tragedy. The precise attendance is never calculated until half-time but on Saturday there would be no interval as such, just a long wait that dragged on into yesterday for news of what was, for once, a genuine matter of life and death.
Only a few hundred Bolton fans were present, others having been put off by a combination of live television coverage, the late kick-off and perhaps their own team's poor form. But that team, beaten 3-0 in the Premier League on the same ground in December, showed up well and delighted the visiting support by taking the lead in only the fifth minute. Tottenham quickly equalised but were repelled for the next half-an-hour.
Half-time was three minutes away when Gareth Bale broke down the left and all eyes, like the television cameras, followed him as he crossed the ball in a repeat of the move that had brought Tottenham's equaliser from Kyle Walker. This time, the ball went out of play but attention was suddenly drawn by other players to the figure of Fabrice Muamba, who had collapsed face down on the turf.
From the reaction of both team-mates and opponents, shouting urgently at the medical teams on the other side of the pitch, it was clear something was seriously wrong. Medics tried resuscitation using a defibrillator and, after five minutes' treatment, the 23-year-old midfielder was carried off on a stretcher wearing an oxygen mask.
Players held their heads in their hands, some declined to look and others, like Jermain Defoe, appeared to be in tears. Muamba is well known to a number of the Tottenham team from his days at Arsenal, Birmingham, Bolton and England under-age sides. He is one of few players to have represented England – having chosen them ahead of his native DR Congo – at every age group from Under-16 to Under-21. He made two appearances at the Under-21 European Championship in Denmark last summer, when Walker was also in the side.
Senior players like the Tottenham captain, Scott Parker, and veteran defender William Gallas appeared to be telling the referee Howard Webb, who also spoke to both managers, that the game could not continue and, within a few of minutes, there was a formal announcement on the public address system that spectators should leave, except for those in the main stand. The latter group were held back until after the ambulance had departed for the London Chest Hospital, followed in a car by Bolton's manager Owen Coyle and club captain Kevin Davies.
The home crowd had quickly picked up on the players' fears and offered warm applause as the Bolton contingent chanted his name and then as the visiting supporters departed with shocked expressions for the journey home.
The incident appears to have generated a bond between them that will doubtless be reflected when the game is rearranged. The date for a second game would, under normal circumstances have been next week, with the semi-final weekend at Wembley only one-and-a-half weeks later.