There is a little corner of London, of North London to be precise, that will forever believe that the FA Cup belongs. For me, Saturday’s quarter final began at the Bell and Hare, on Tottenham High Road in the drizzle and smoke of optimism, in the shadow of the South Stand, and with eminently beatable opposition ahead of us. The feeling was, at that point in the day, that Spurs were on their way to Wember-ley – no one proclaiming it more so than an overweight chap wearing a 2001 away replica shirt and a St. Patrick’s Day Hat.
There are some fans that just wind you up more than others. There are some that you anticipate; mostly fans of other London fans for us at Spurs. You know that ‘this lot’ will bring a rabble, and that ‘these ones’ will antagonise you, everyone senses it, I’m sure even the police horses do. I have been indifferent to Bolton; perhaps it’s to do with the perceived antipathy amongst the local support, I imagine I’m not the only one.
From this indifferent origin, relations didn’t blossom on Saturday. My vantage point in the Lower South Stand allowed me to stare in questioning disbelief at the elderly, balding Boltonian – clad in a grey tracksuit, hood down, big headphones on, being escorted out of the ground within the opening twenty minutes. Unsure of how to deal with the attention he received, he bid us adieu with a flurry of fist pumping, middle finger flipping, and general ambiguous aggression.
Whilst it proved to be the nadir between fans’ relations, it wasn’t to be the last time in the evening that the crowd of near 36,000 would gaze, united, at the surreal scenes before us. Whilst Bolton’s opener, and Kyle Walker’s response had ‘warmed things up’ between the two sets of fans, it was a relationship and a dynamic that would change dramatically before the half was up.
The second time all eyes were transfixed was on 41 minutes, as Bolton’s tall defensive midfielder Fabrice Muamba collapsed to the turf. An initially disinterested lull, and a respite from Tottenham’s unconvincing play were soon replaced by a hushed awareness as the minutes passed and phyisos, then stretcher bearers, sprinted over to the fallen player.
Images since have captured the vulnerable prayers of Rafael van der Vaart and the apparent disbelief, and the despair, of Benoit Assou-Ekotto. At the time, this was hard to comprehend and appreciate, but the urgency of the medical staff and the abnormal length of the stoppage truly was. I agree with Ian Dennis, of BBC Five Live, who described an eeriness descending over the stadium. An event that belonged in a hospital drama being played out before the concerned eyes of thousands, fans who had come for a spectacle and sport, ended up seeing a young man fighting for his life.
And yet England’s civil societies seem to prove time and time again that they can unite and they can gauge and respond to the demands of a moment, to the demands of a tragedy. We saw it last summer, as residents across the city, as well as in Tottenham itself, pulled together to begin to respond to the devastating effects of London’s riots. We saw it in the national outpouring of sympathy following Gary Speed’s death in November, and it was experienced again on Saturday night, as first London, then the nation, and then the entire footballing community turned its thoughts and prayers towards Muamba.
Gary Cahill, at Bolton himself until January, captured this communal sentiment very publically after unveiling his ‘Pray 4 Muamba’ undershirt following a goal for Chelsea against Leicester in Sunday’s quarter final.
I can just about imagine the disappointment of driving the cumulative 8 hours or so from Bolton to London only to have the match abandoned, yet I can’t begin to relate to the despair facing the Wanderers fans driving home knowing that their 23 year old number 6 was fighting for his life in the London Chest Hospital. Muamba isn’t just any player either, he was a humble and generous individual, and popular at Bolton as well, being named as Player of the Season in May 2010.
Having studied African politics, and being captivated by the continent’s football, I am particularly interested by the complex and varied diaspora of African players to Europe’s academies. Muamba’s road to the Premier League began in Kinshasa, Zaire (today the Democratic Republic of Congo) and he arrived at Bolton in June 2008, having previously been at Birmingham and Arsenal. His 33 England U21 caps are testament to his talents, and to the effort he has put into constructing his life away from the DCR since arriving in Britain in 1999 aged eleven.
These Arsenal roots were forgotten by the Tottenham support, dissipating away from the Lane and off into the city, all fairly shaken, and noticeably muted. I witnessed several kind words exchanged between fans, visible handshaking, and frequent perceptible chants of Muamba’s name, by Spurs and Bolton alike. Wanderers chairman Phil Gartside was one of many to praise the mature and considered reaction of supporters.
I doubt that anyone who was in White Hart Lane on Saturday will easily forget those scenes. Spurs are a team that can be guaranteed to cherish the FA Cup, and fans consistently advocate the merits of the competition. Despite this, no one even murmured the word ‘Wembley’ at half time, animosity and ambitions were placed to one side, and hopes and prayers focused upon one young man and his fight for life.
Once again I was moved by the capacity of football fans, so often blind in their loyalties and sympathies, to recognise the bigger picture and to offer their support to a common cause. Bolton manager Owen Coyle expressed the wishes of the football world as he spoke of thoughts and prayers united for Fabrice Muamba, ‘God willing, he makes it through.’ In times like this, the footballing community can be, and can mean, so much more.
Ed Dove, London
Twitter ~ @EddyDove