Football moved on at White Hart Lane last night, with relief and gratitude. This was not quite an ordinary FA Cup quarter-final, and there was a very dignified and appropriate nod to the events of 10 days before the game and at half-time.
But when referee Howard Webb blew his whistle this was a conventional FA Cup atmosphere along with everything one would hope for. Unity, perhaps more than anything else, has been the defining characteristic of these difficult days following Fabrice Muamba's cardiac arrest at Tottenham on 17 March. Club rivalry felt like it was almost suspended in recognition of an issue from an entirely different category.
It seemed, beforehand, as if the same might be true last night; an evening of tributes and solidarity, perhaps, with the contest to win a place at Wembley merely a reason for everyone's being there. In fact it was nothing of the sort. That much was immediately apparent in the second minute when Ryo Miyaichi was booed by the home fans. Miyaichi is on loan from Arsenal, for whom he has made two substitute appearances in the Carling Cup.
It was precisely the sort of uncharitable mocking which makes an English football atmosphere what it is. Tottenham, after all, are not meant to like Arsenal, and it would not be a proper Tottenham game if they afforded the young winger too much hospitality. The Bolton fans sang about Muamba, and also repeated his name throughout the 41st minute. But they also sang for Miyaichi, Nigel Reo-Coker and Owen Coyle, even soliciting waves from their manager who has been a pillar of strength.
Harry Redknapp wrote in his pre-match programme notes that he had been in touch with his counterpart over recent days. "Owen's handled it fantastically well," Redknapp said. "It was something all those who were here will never forget, but its been like a miracle since then.
"We all know," Redknapp said after the game, "[that] he has a long road ahead but from where he was last Saturday to where we are now, it is just a miracle how much he has improved."
"Hopefully we can all move on now," Redknapp wrote, setting the evening's mood perfectly, "and he can continue to improve."
There was a definite sense, for everyone, that to return the focus to football, both the simple playing of the game and also the thrill of a potential Wembley semi-final, was welcome. This had been earned, though, by the perfectly-pitched pre-game acknowledgments.
"The reason we're here is because Fabrice is getting better," Coyle said watching his brave team lose 3-1 to a very good Spurs side. "The last 10 days have been incredible. It's been great to show football in such a good light, and the way Tottenham have conducted themselves shows them in a very good light."
Before kick-off all the players, and the match officials, came out with T-shirts bearing both club crests and the words "Uniting for Fabrice" on the front and "Thank you for your support for Fabrice" on the back.
When the players were stripped and lined up on the pitch, the announcer declared a moment of thanks for the medical staffs of both clubs, as well as the doctors and ambulance workers. He did not need to complete his exhortation before being drowned out by applause. "It was important we acknowledged all the help we've had," reflected Coyle.
All 30,718 fans, to say nothing of the players and officials from either side who knew Muamba, wanted to express their profound relief at the recent direction of events. But, having done so, they wanted to play the game.Reuse content