Just as Owen Coyle and his Bolton side overcame the initial hurdle of returning to action on the pitch seven days after Fabrice Muamba’s collapse at White Hart Lane, another daunting challenge presents itself — a return to the scene of the incident that has shocked football.
With Muamba still in intensive care after suffering a cardiac arrest at Tottenham, albeit steadily improving, the rest of his Bolton team-mates overcame local rivals Blackburn on Saturday to lift themselves out of the relegation zone.
Two headers from David Wheater, an unlikely source given he had only one goal to his name for Bolton beforehand, was enough to grab three points for the hosts and to ensure Steven N’Zonzi’s second-half header did nothing but help Blackburn’s goal difference.
Before the game the talk was of how the Bolton players would react to the week’s events, but they returned with an inspired performance after a sea of emotion had swirled around the Reebok Stadium with video montages and placard mosaics for the stricken midfielder.
Now they face an even tougher test — going back to the scene where their friend and team-mate almost died, just 10 days after it occurred.
Tomorrow night will see Bolton face Tottenham again after the original FA Cup quarter-final was abandoned when Muamba collapsed 41 minutes into the tie with the game locked at 1-1, and Coyle admitted he does not know how his players will react.
He said: “The positive is that Fabrice is getting better. If he had not been, it would have been a different conversation we would be having.
“I can’t tell you how we will cope with going back until we get there. It was the same against Blackburn and it will be different, I accept that. As much as we felt ready to play, until they cross that white line you don’t know how they are going to react.”
With Muamba fighting for his life in the immediate days after his collapse, talk of relegation scraps, needing wins and six-pointers seemed insignificant and Coyle admitted it has changed his outlook on the game.
“Nobody is more passionate about football games than me, nobody plays to win more than me. I’m always positive, but that is nothing compared to the fight that Fabrice and his family have had. It’s a football pressure.
“When you are in football you want to do your best. Sometimes it does give you a bit of perspective in how you do things but does it make a difference to how passionate you are for winning games? It certainly gives it some balance.”
Wheater hardly celebrated after scoring twice, first from a Martin Petrov cross and then from a Ryo Miyaichi corner, and now the defender wants his side to go to Tottenham and earn a spot in a Wembley semi-final for their team-mate.
“I think it will be difficult to go to White Hart Lane. But now we know he’s getting a bit better we can go there and play for him, like we did against Blackburn,” explained the defender.
“If we win that we’re at Wembley and I think Fab would want us to do that. He would want us to go back there.”
N’Zonzi’s header in the 56th minute from Morten Gamst Pedersen’s long throw looked to have given Blackburn a way back into the game, but they failed to muster any potency in the final third that would penetrate the Bolton defence.
After Blackburn’s wins over Wolves and Sunderland it looked like they were edging away from danger, but now with Manchester United arriving at Ewood Park next Monday, their fight to stay up is far from over as they sit just three points above the drop zone.
Steve Kean, the Rovers manager, said: “I think we’ve missed an opportunity to pull away but I don’t think there’s any reason why we can’t go on another run like we have done.”
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