Pitch-perfect tribute as Bolton return to business
The multi-coloured carpet of shirts, flowers and messages that stands as a monument to the recovery of Fabrice Muamba was still spreading late on Saturday afternoon as Bolton Wanderers celebrated an emotional victory.
It was exactly a week on from the moment Muamba collapsed after suffering a cardiac arrest in the FA Cup quarter-final at Tottenham and supporters of Bolton and Blackburn were standing at the spot in the Reebok Stadium that has become a shrine of support and hope for the 23-year-old.
The floral tributes and mementoes offered a stark reminder that the stadium could have been hosting a much more sombre occasion had it not been for the remarkable work of the medical teams at White Hart Lane and at London's Chest Hospital, where Muamba remains in intensive care.
The young midfielder may have been continuing his recovery more than 200 miles away but his presence was everywhere from the moment fans started arriving in glorious sunshine hours before the meeting between these two fierce Lancashire rivals.
While the mood before, during and after Bolton's 2-1 win could not be described as one of undiluted celebration, there was relief mixed with a cautious optimism, and a desire from both sets of supporters to show their support for Muamba. The tone was struck perfectly.
Between the blue barriers marking the area designated for those wishing to leave tokens of support, the scene was eerily quiet before kick-off, despite the presence of so many fans, but the emotions that would colour this occasion became clear once Bolton's players came out to warm up in white shirts bearing Muamba's "6" on the back - with similar decorations for the substitutes' green bibs.
And spontaneous applause broke out around the crowd of almost 27,000 when a video montage of the moments of global support for Muamba that have accumulated throughout the week - interspersed with images of him smiling and in action - were flashed on to the stadium's giant screens.
The stand named after the great Nat Lofthouse then housed a giant mosaic with "Muamba 6" spelled out on cards in a very visible manifestation of public feeling as a prolonged period of applause began.
Bolton's players paid tribute to their team-mate before the match. Photo: Getty
Bolton's win - courtesy of two first-half headers from defender David Wheater - was vital in the context of their attempt to stay in the Premier League but, after each goal had been duly celebrated, chants of "Fabrice Muamba" rang around the ground again before play resumed.
And manager Owen Coyle, who has emerged as a dignified and respectful spokesman for the club from the moment he arrived at Muamba's bedside last Saturday, was commendably measured in placing three points in a football match perfectly within the wider context.
He looked tired, entirely understandably, and when asked to sum up his mood he admitted it would be done "with difficulty".
It was done successfully, however, with the Scot at pains to separate football issues and questions from the priority of Muamba's health.
The two strands of the story then became happily entwined when Coyle revealed the player had used a consultant as a messenger to relay a "good luck" message to his team-mates from his hospital bed.
And one of chairman Phil Gartside's first tasks after the game was a call to Muamba's father Marcel - most importantly to check on his progress, but also to pass on the good news of victory.
Blackburn must not be forgotten on what was a delicate occasion for them too. They have shown great respect to Bolton and Muamba. Their fans were a credit to their club, with manager Steve Kean also successfully walking the line between showing awareness of the feelings surrounding this occasion and respecting his own and the Rovers fans' desire for victory.
It never came, despite Steven Nzonzi's goal, and when Andre Marriner's final whistle sounded Coyle joined his players and staff in a huddle to deliver his own private message of thanks to a team he admitted had been left physically and emotionally drained by the week's events.
Thoughts will now turn to Tuesday's FA Cup return to White Hart Lane and the harrowing and still fresh memories that will be evoked for both sets of players. It will be another occasion charged with emotion.
Life started to bear some semblance of normality for Bolton Wanderers again on Saturday as they returned to the business of fighting relegation at the wrong end of the Premier League.
For Muamba, the battle continues and Coyle said one of their tasks was "to represent Fabrice in the right way".
This mission was accomplished by everyone inside The Reebok.