Bolton climb out of drop zone on emotional day
Bolton Wanderers 2 Blackburn Rovers 1: Rovers retreat after Wheater bags brace in tribute victory for Muamba
The Reebok Stadium
Sunday 25 March 2012
As Bolton's footballers filed one by one into the London hospital where the stricken figure of Fabrice Muamba lay, some remarked that what had happened to him made the game irrelevant. It was an understandable statement, the sort of thing you say when words are superfluous.
For the men and women who work in the ticket office, in corporate hospitality or the press office, who will be issued with redundancy notices if Bolton are relegated, this match was desperately relevant. While their young midfielder was making a scarcely believable recovery with a heart that at White Hart Lane last week had stopped for 78 minutes, Blackburn and Queens Park Rangers had both won and Bolton, laden with suffocating debts of £100m, had sunk further into the mire.
It would not have been the hardest team-talk of Owen Coyle's life and afterwards he admitted it had not been a long one. "They all wanted to represent Fabrice" said the Bolton manager and as the entire club has done since his collapse, they represented him magnificently. However, they also represented the men and women who come to work at the Reebok Stadium to sell advertising or serve meals in corporate boxes; people who will have no parachute payments if Bolton go down.
They won, although not perhaps as comfortably as they should have done. The last moments, played out to a chorus of Muamba's name, were horribly tense with every throw-in or hoof upfield applauded as if it were a backheel by Lionel Messi.
"How did I approach the game?" said Coyle. "With difficulty, frankly. As much as we needed to play the game, our thoughts were all with Fabrice and his recovery. Even when the game started, we felt we had to represent him in the right manner and I think we did that. We should have won by four or five but, being Bolton Wanderers, we chose to make things difficult for ourselves."
The Reebok lacks a focal point like Anfield's Shankly Gates. However, next to the players' entrance there is a plinth with the words "In Remembrance" and the ground beneath it had been strewn with shirts, flowers and scarves. There were messages from primary schools and exhortations to prayer. Someone had left a can of (unopened) Fosters which may have meant more to the donor than any sporting memorabilia.
Before kick-off they played an understated video of how events at Tottenham seven days before had echoed around Europe and finished with the words: "Being Strong Is the Only Choice You Have." As Nick Hornby remarked to his companion in Fever Pitch as he stood on Highbury's North Bank when news of the Hillsborough Disaster trickled through, "Football will move on, even that game will be replayed."
Here, very slowly, football moved on. The last time these two sides had met had been on a frigid December night at Ewood Park, which ended with Steve Kean, watched by his wife and enduring a torrent of hate from his own supporters, walking off with a Blackburn shirt flung in his face. To everyone except the club's Indian owners, it seemed his tortured reign must come to an end.
Instead, Kean has endured and now the pressure was on Bolton to win, although the Blackburn manager admitted it was his players who had been more affected by the emotion of the afternoon.
"I tried to tell them we had business to do but I think we played the occasion more than Bolton," he admitted. "Their players seemed to have a spring in their step."
Blackburn twice threatened, once in the first half when Andre Marriner denied what appeared a reasonable appeal for a penalty when Gretar Steinsson bundled over Junior Hoilett.
Then, when Bolton had squandered several opportunities for a third goal, Morten Gamst Pedersen's long throw was headed in at the near post by Steven Nzonzi and, suddenly, the spring disappeared from Bolton boots.
They had begun with a desperate motivation. Martin Petrov sent in the first shot of the day, slapping against Paul Robinson's gloves. Another skidded past Robinson's post.
It was from Petrov's boots that Bolton's opening goal arrived; a cross delivered from the left that Nzonzi tried to flick away but succeeded only in sending the ball straight into the path of David Wheater's head.
This was only the defender's second goal since signing from Middlesbrough. The first had come in very different circumstances, to salvage a replay in an FA Cup tie at Macclesfield.
The third was a few minutes in coming and once more it was a cross, dreadfully defended by Blackburn, as Wheater muscled past Scott Dann to head home.
David Ngog and then Mark Davies squandered headers that would have allowed the Reebok to breathe without fear but then Nzonzi scored and Adam Bogdan began dropping straightforward crosses in a manner that suggested that, if Hungary were to take up cricket, he might not be an automatic choice to keep wicket.
Nevertheless, Bolton clung on. Meanwhile in the London Chest Hospital the result was relayed to Muamba by his father, Marcel. The effect can only be imagined.
Bolton (4-1-4-1): Bogdan, Steinsson, Wheater, Ream, Ricketts; Reo-Coker; Miyaichi, Pratley, M.Davies, Petrov; Ngog (Klasnic, 79).
Blackburn (4-1-3-2): Robinson; Lowe, Dann, Hanley, Martin Olsson; Nzonzi; Formica (Dunn, 65), Pedersen, Marcus Olsson; Hoilett, Yakubu.
Referee: Andre Marriner
Man of the match: Petrov (Bolton)
Match rating: 7/10
The players arrive past a carpet of scarves, shirts and messages of support strewn outside the Reebok Stadium.
The two teams warm up, each player wearing a shirt with 'Muamba 6' written on their back.
A video is played on the big screens at the Reebok that shows Lionel Messi and Sergio Ramos among other players wearing messages of support for Muamba.
The crowd in the Nat Lofthouse Stand hold up placards that spell the name: 'Muamba 6' across one side of the stadium.
The stadium stands to give Muamba a standing ovation of a minute's applause.
Owen Coyle, his backroom staff, players and the club mascot, Lenny the Lion, embrace in the middle of the pitch as chants of Muamba's name echo around the stadium.
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