Owen Coyle is back on familiar turf but life may never be the same again

After showing admirable qualities all week, the Bolton manager was back at the training ground, yet his life will never be the same

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The Independent Online

Owen Coyle was back in a pair of blue shorts, a baggy red Bolton Wanderers sweatshirt, football socks pulled up to his knees and a pair of trainers that had "OC" scribbled on the side in a black felt-tip pen. There was reassurance in that. He was back at Bolton Wanderers' training ground, players were going to work and Coyle was facing the media on home soil. It was an attempt to return to normality, however futile, to get ready for the next game of football, to make things the same, even though they might never be for the game, never mind his football club, and you suspect, never quite for himself.

Coyle was ready to talk about Blackburn Rovers, the next game for Bolton, a game that will go a long way to deciding if there is Premier League football at the Reebok Stadium next season, and to usher in a semblance of focus and normality after everything that had happened in the previous five days.

And yet it was not a normal day at Bolton Wanderers' training ground, tucked away in leafy Chorley, on Euxton Lane, just around the corner from the Runshaw Adult College and Business Centre. There was no milk left for the tea for starters and the hot water was similarly running dry. Willing hands were at the pumps, more arrived, to cope with the invasion.

Coyle had looked like a head of state when he last addressed the media, two days earlier, in the capital, out of costume, with a suit and tie, a genuine football man, coping so admirably with what life had thrown at him last Saturday tea-time, in an FA Cup tie at White Hart Lane. It is not his story, it was not (nearly) his tragedy, but how he has coped has felt crucial. How he addressed the nation drew huge respect, standing outside the London Chest Hospital to inform the world – including players from Real Madrid – of Fabrice Muamba's situation. To be watched in Los Angeles, where David Beckham and his family have willed an horrendous situation to turn for the better.

 

As he sat at a small table in Bolton's media room, normality was long gone. There were seven plugged-in microphones waiting for another audience with the world via television. First he would speak to more than a dozen journalists from the written press. Outside were another half a dozen radio reporters. This has never happened ahead of Bolton-Blackburn.

Nor has a Bolton manager talked religion and science, of prayer and medical bravery. He did it candidly, as ever, revealing Kenny Dalglish, the Liverpool manager who stood so strong in the face of such unbearable devastation at his football club after Hillsborough, had been the first to phone, offering whatever help Coyle needed as he sat in a police car, speeding through London at 120 miles an hour to the hospital on Saturday, where a footballer – his footballer – was already involved in the biggest fight of his young life.

One hundred and twenty miles an hour. It has been the speed of life for Coyle since Muamba crumpled to the White Hart Lane turf. He has tried.

"Am I drained?" he said yesterday. "I don't think it's something I've sat down and thought about. Your focus is on making sure that your thoughts are with Fabrice and his family. They are what's important."

You have to know Coyle to understand why there were no signs of strain, of tiredness, of mental exhaustion. He drips energy as a matter of course. Perhaps being teetotal helps.

He was one of nine children growing up in Little Donegal in the Gorbals district of Glasgow. "We have a strong sense of feeling, a strong sense of family and a strong sense of support," he said. "And the word family is not just about your own immediate family. If you work in a group, you are all a part of that, and if somebody is hurting, you are hurting along with them. You certainly feel for them and have that affinity and closeness with them. I don't know whether that is a working-class thing from Glasgow."

There is steel inside the warmth. He races members of staff up the stairs at the Reebok Stadium as they travel in the lift. Usually he wins, and there are smiles, always beaming smiles.

But not yesterday.

That was the real difficulty for Coyle. On the one hand there had to be an attempt at portraying it as another game; hence shorts and a sweatshirt, his standard matchday attire, but it sat beside the humanity being offered to any of his players, especially his youngsters. A chance, that is, to sit out tomorrow's game, if their distress has not cleared after watching the life almost slip out of a team-mate the last time they played a competitive football match.

"When I came back yesterday, I had to gauge the players, especially the younger ones, because we're all affected in different ways," he added. "With some people you see it in their faces. With others you don't, but that doesn't mean to say they're not hurting. The [Muamba] family, Marcel [his father] and Shauna [his fiancée], felt we had to play the games and do our utmost for Fabrice. That's what we want to do.

"I don't think the younger ones react differently. Even for the older ones, I don't think anything prepares you for an experience like that, but the older players are more worldly-wise in their ways, they will have had more life experiences, even if not to that level. They will be better-placed to deal with that.

"I said to them in this room that if anybody felt it had been too traumatic or they needed somebody to speak to, they only had to let me know and I would listen. If somebody is not ready, they won't play, simple as that. I would never ask any of my players to play if they are not ready for the game. Every individual is different. We are all unique, but we trained yesterday and we have to go into a football game and we just have to go and do our best, as we do every game."

There was too much to discuss before football though. Like how traumatic it had really been when Muamba had fallen and the enormity had begun to emerge. Like how inspiring it had been when Muamba's eyes first flickered with life after 78 minutes of death.

"When it happened was horrendous," Coyle added. "It showed you how fragile life can be at any given moment, it can all be taken away. It's a lesson we should all heed. It's a lesson I will. You have to cherish that.

"On the initial Saturday night we were are all there at the hospital; the chairman, the skipper, Shauna, the medical staff, and there was a sense of it being surreal, we were in shock.

"Because of the procedure, there was going to be 24 hours of nothing, really, because they needed to 'cool him down' in the terminology, to stabilise him. On the Monday morning we were there from eight because we knew that was the point when they were going to start to try to return him to his own normal body temperature.

"At that point we knew his body had to kick in of its own accord. That was when he started to show signs of improvement and that was great for us all. I think that, then, was when we were able to talk a bit more and a bit more openly, because there was real light at the end of the tunnel. That was a day of terrific progress considering where he had come from.

"It is difficult to describe that feeling. I always like to think I am a very positive person anyway. The two big things I always felt Fabrice had in his favour is that he is a fit, young man and the other thing is he has had to fight and scratch to earn everything in his life, because of his upbringing and leaving that country and coming to another culture.

"You only have to look at the number of times they tried to resuscitate him and to come through that, you can see he is a natural-born fighter and that will stand him in good stead.

"It would be underestimating it, though, to say the feeling was euphoria. To get that reaction so quickly. Andrew and Sam and the lads who were dealing with it will tell you they were surprised on Monday when they heard the improvement had come.

"I think Shauna was the first and she came out as high as a kite – she is a very positive person – and said he had opened his eyes. The next time, he had moved his arms and his legs, which was remarkable. Bit by bit there was that progress."

Coyle spoke of being overwhelmed at people's reaction, at the endless show of hope. "From day one, the only thoughts we have had is Fabrice's well-being and how he progresses. When I've bumped into people in the street they've stopped and said 'Our thoughts and prayers are with him'. Prayer has been the most used word since the weekend and long may that continue.

"It doesn't matter what your chosen church is, but the fact that a collective unit of people are praying together is important in that journey. I have my own beliefs and they have not changed, but it's been refreshing to know so many people are praying for Fabrice and he's in their thoughts. That's quite remarkable."

There were questions that cannot be answered, those the public wish to know, like what next, in every sense.

"We also know," Coyle added, "that he still has a wee bit to go." (This was stressed by Coyle and everyone at Bolton yesterday).

"They still have to ascertain how it came about in the first place. He's still seriously ill in intensive care, but I don't care how long it takes, as long as Fabrice continues to get better. That's the all-important thing within all this.

"We would love Fabrice to come back to be the lad he was; that big smile and playing at the level he has, but the biggest single thing that Shauna said is that Fabrice is alive, and she and Josh [their son] have him. That couldn't be more true. Anything else on top of that would be a bonus. It goes without saying, this football club will always look after Fabrice."

Then Coyle spoke at length to radio journalists. Then those from television.

Half an hour later, he did what he was dressed for.

Owen Coyle went to play football.

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