Part 2 of the Wanderers Project 2015, featuring Marc Iles of The Bolton News
Again, we’re very lucky to have two more writers who need little introduction.
Marc Iles is the Chief Football Writer of The Bolton News. He writes about the abandoned match at White Hart Lane, 17th March 2012.
IT was midnight; Bethnal Green was buzzing in the background but I was walking towards a row of derelict shops, where waiting for me in the shadows was a man with information.
This isn`t a cheesy intro to a spy novel. I would make a terrible James Bond. I hate Martini.
But having slipped from a throng of press lining the step of the London Chest Hospital I was about to get an inside steer on the biggest story on the planet outside what appeared to be an old estate agents.
Not five hours earlier it was the same old, same old. I`d been cursing the wi-fi down the road at White Hart Lane whilst chatting about the relative merits of Nigel Reo-Coker on BBC Radio Manchester with Phil Kinsella.
Sky Sports had buggered about with the kick-off time, so presumably no decent co-commentator was willing to step forward. And besides, I`d already decided to ditch my live blog for The Bolton News because of the stadium`s infamously poor signal, so what was I going to do? Actually watch the game?
I didn`t fancy Wanderers to beat Spurs and get to Wembley again, if I`m honest. Perhaps it was the dread of writing another 12-page supplement after a defeat like the one against Stoke City? I still shiver thinking about that.
The game itself proved better than I had expected. Wanderers had gone ahead when Darren Pratley`s header bounced off Gareth Bale and past Carlo Cudicini but a few minutes later Bale made amends with a great cross for Kyle Walker to head in the equaliser.
Edging towards half time and Spurs were on the attack, I think Bale had possession again just inside the Bolton half and was driving forward. Just as they got to the edge of the box referee Howard Webb blew up and your attention was drawn to a Bolton player who had slumped to the ground 20 yards behind the ball.
I, with my infinite wisdom, picked him out as Nigel Reo-Coker.
Phil, ever the professional, corrected me. It was Fabrice Muamba.
Whenever there is a break in play you have to find something to chat about and I think Phil asked me if Bolton could be pleased with their half`s work. But as I waffled on to fill some airspace it suddenly dawned on me that this was not a run-of-the-mill injury.
Bit by bit it dawned on us what was actually happening. It was all so surreal – the urgency of the medical staff`s movement, players suddenly who had been huddling round Fabrice suddenly looking away in anguish, the complete hush of the crowd.
The press box at White Hart Lane is abnormally close to the pitch, so you get a worm`s eye view of what is going on. It can be quite a problem during a game, and what is going on near the far touchline can be guesswork, but this vantage point allowed me to stare straight into the gaze of Owen Coyle and his staff in the dugout. It was clear he knew the gravitas of what was unfolding in front of us – in front of the world, as it happened.
All the while myself and Phil had to keep some conversation going. But I remember the point when I realised what the doctors were actually doing in that huddle; they were pumping his chest.
All professionalism went out of the window from there on in. I`ve heard the tape only once since March 17, 2012, but I know for a fact I said: “Jesus Christ Phil they`re doing CPR. He`s got a son.”
A player I knew well, a young man with a young family was dying in front of my very eyes. Panic had set in.
I took my headphones off just in time to hear the crowd start to realise what was happening too. From total hush there were waves of pure energy pouring down from all four sides of the ground. The whole place was willing him on to live.
Thinking back now – and knowing how things turned out – there is a jet black humour to be found about the way the crowd coincided their chants with the CPR efforts.
They were out there for 17 minutes before Howard Webb abandoned the game but it felt like 30 seconds. I can remember looking around the press box for some kind of assurance and seeing Gordon Strachan, colour drained from his face, just shaking his head in disbelief.
When they finally moved Fabrice on the stretcher and back towards the touchline, in our direction, I caught the eye of Kevin Davies. The look he gave me said everything. He was fearing the worst.
I abandoned my post on the radio with Phil`s blessing. There was a brief spell of everyone kicking around and waiting for a statement of some kind. Protocol had been abandoned and Bolton`s staff fled out on to the busy roads of North London to follow the ambulance heading for the London Chest Hospital.
The phone calls started. Everyone who had been watching on TV suddenly wanted the latest.
I did a phone interview with Five Live whilst stood on a petrol forecourt on Tottenham Court Road but no-one at that time, including myself, could add anything other than their prayers.
It was clear that we needed to get across town and thanks to the dextrous driving of Trevor Baxter, me and Dan Houlker – now in charge of press at Bolton but then a relative newcomer to the club – zig-zagged through the traffic to reach the London Chest Hospital. Within 15 minutes we were joined by at least a dozen camera crews and reporters.
Everyone was prevented from actually going inside the hospital by some hastily-congregated security, and no-one knew what kind of scenes were unfolding behind the locked doors, but the rumours sweeping round in that next hour were incredible.
I know one major news source erroneously reported that Fabrice had woken up from his induced coma and was speaking to doctors.
Some brief statements were made which gave very little away about just how bad things had become. Mark Alderton was in charge of Bolton`s press office in those days and to this day if I had a crisis I needed managing – he`d be the man I`d pick to manage it.
Between ferrying news back and forth to my news desk, who were by now in full swing late on a Saturday night, and keeping on top of the endless conjecture sweeping around the car park, my only worry was that my laptop battery might not hold out.
I`ll spare him the embarrassment, but I know one member of the Bolton press team who had to gatecrash a bar mitzvah going on at a local hotel to find a plug socket to charge his phone.
This madness continued well into the night before I got a text instructing me to meet my ‘informant` at a row of shops 500 yards behind the hospital.
There, pulling no punches he admitted that the chances of Fabrice making the night were slim. He had been placed in an induced coma and his heart had stopped for some 78 minutes.
In short, we should start writing an obituary.
Dawn was breaking by the time we got back to Manchester, and my wife and kids were already up by the time I made it through my own front door. Without sounding overly-sentimental, I had been desperate to get back and see them.
The following day passed by in a blur of words but I was brought back into focus when my wife reminded me I had a front room to paint. Half way up a pair of ladders on the Monday lunchtime I got a call to say Fabrice had woken up and a miracle had occurred.
The rest is history. By the time the game was replayed, Wanderers losing 3-1 and Adam Bogdan having a stormer, Fabrice was on the road to recovery. He wouldn`t play again but that is just a footnote in the whole story.
I`ve experienced huge highs and lows in the years I`ve watched the Whites from the press box but that game, just 41 minutes long, will be the one that lives with me forever. I`m just glad there was a happy ending.
BY MARC ILES (@marciles)