Updated: May 10
I’ve waited a while to write about Fabrice Muamba after being at the match. I wanted to gather my thoughts, and also to step back a little as so much was being said. And I wanted to see if how I felt at the time was how I would feel a week later.
At the match last Saturday, sitting in my usual seat high in the Park Lane, I just caught sight of Muamba flat out on the turf at the top of my field of vision. With play coming towards us I was following the ball until one of the people I sit with said, “His legs are twitching. It looks like he’s fitting.” It was the moment when everyone in the stadium realised something was very wrong.
The medical staff were on the pitch very quickly, and it was clear from their activity and the players’ reactions that it was serious. The ground was quiet but in the murmer of conversation all around people were beginning to fear the worst. As the medics’ efforts redoubled, the crowd started to shout “come on.” Some cheered and clapped, encouraging what we knew was a fight for life. Then the chant of Muamba’s name swept the ground.
At the time, I just stood and watched. I knew what people were doing, that the chants and the cheering were all supportive, encouragement, a way for the crowd to feel we were doing something to help. To me, at the time, it felt wrong – shouting encouragement for someone to live in an arena. That was just my own thought, and why I was quiet. I don’t think what the crowd did was wrong, in fact I know that the fans reacted in the way they did because they have more humanity than football crowds are sometimes given credit for. It was just that, for me, in the moment, it just didn’t feel right to join in.
Much has been written about the crowd’s reaction since the weekend. It was, of course, a good thing. The crowd reacted with humanity, and that’s why I’ve been a bit discomforted by the amount of effort that’s gone into praising that humanity. Have things got so bad that we need to praise people for doing what should be expected?
I’m probably being oversensitive. And I certainly don’t want to criticise what has largely been very positive. But I think there’s much in what Times football editor Tony Evans said in an excellent column on Monday (the link is behind a paywall), and also in Mick Hume’s take on Spiked. There is just a teensy bit of surprise that the great unwashed are capable of doing the right thing in some quarters, and that brings up that old question of how football supporters are viewed.
Hume’s view is that the surprise expressed in some sections of the media is because “the authorities and much of the media now consider the mass of football fans to be such lowlife scum that they were shocked to discover the crowd showing such humanity”. Evans observes that “the image of drunken, marauding hooligans was challenged” and also that “The image of players as filthy rich, lecherous dilettantes was undermined”.
What strikes me is how important a little thought is. It’s easy to stereotype and generalise, less easy to see the detail that reveals much more. Football fans, by and large, are pretty good people – although as Evans also points out, that’s not the way they are treated. Of course fans are no angels at times. I’ve heard some pretty vile stuff at football matches over the last 30 years, but what’s the betting that those chanting about Munich or Hillsborough or whatever sick jibe comes into their heads never witnessed the events they think are fair game to use as abuse?
But despite those misgivings, there is much that is positive to take from this. Most positive of all, the news that Fabrice Muamba looks to be making a remarkable recovery, thanks to the humanity, dedication and expertise of our wonderful medical staff and NHS.
Like football fans everywhere, I wish him a speedy and full recovery.