Belfast Telegraph

James Lawton: Like Manchester United in 1958, Bolton must play on

It is entirely understandable that some players of Bolton Wanderers would prefer to revisit most places on earth rather than White Hart Lane as early as next week.

Traumatised by the sight of their team-mate Fabrice Muamba caught in such a random, terrifying tragedy, confronting perhaps for the first time the reality that being young and conspicuously fit does not necessarily proof you against the vagaries of fate, it would be remarkable if their appetite for the abandoned FA Cup tie had not been severely disturbed.

However, it would be wrong for Bolton to withdraw from the tournament. The possibility, we are told, will be discussed in meetings between the Bolton directors, manager Owen Coyle and players and in consultation with the Football Association.

One feeling is that it would be asking too much of Muamba's team-mates to go back to the place which had so recently filled them with horror – and this is certainly consistent enough with the widespread emotional reaction that the young player's plight somehow rendered football in general and this particular Cup tie "meaningless".

Yet at what point would the Wanderers be required to fulfil their professional duties?

Unfortunately, there is no rule of thumb on such generally uncharted areas of human frailty, no time limits – or extensions – for those who find it harder than others to deal with some of life's harshest developments.

This, of course, is the dilemma which from time to time intrudes even into what so many who watch it see as the fantasy world of football, something that can be picked up and put down as you might a favourite television show or the latest hit movie.

Football is though, as the tragic Fabrice reminded us, real life played by real people and the trouble with real life is that sometimes it has to be prosecuted in the worst of times.

Over the last 50 years or so in this country football has provided two classic examples – the Munich tragedy of 1958 and that of Hillsborough in 1989.

On both occasions the players who lived through the ordeals questioned deeply their will to go on, at least without some respite.

Sir Bobby Charlton, lightly injured but profoundly shocked, retreated to his native North-east with no sure sense that he would ever again be able to play football with his old passion. It took an impromptu kick-around with local lads in the alley at the back of his family's terraced home to recreate some of his old feeling for the game – and the inspiration provided by his team-mates Harry Gregg and Bill Foulkes, who worked heroically to help fellow survivors and then reported back to duty immediately.

We do not quite know the full extent of the scars they carried on their way to that season's FA Cup final, ironically against Bolton.

Many years later, Charlton reflected on those days when he went back to his roots – and the protection of those he knew best. "I did wonder if it could ever be the same," he said, "after losing all those team-mates with whom I had shared everything. And it never could because there are times in life when you lose your innocence, when you have to look at things from a different angle – and that was what we all faced after Munich. Some dealt with it better than others, but of course everyone was changed."

After Hillsborough, the Liverpool players also fought their way to the Cup final – and won against Everton. It was just five weeks after the loss of 96 spectators, whose situation had been signalled desperately by the goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar running from his goal and crying the alarm.

In the final John Aldridge scored one of Liverpool's three goals. After Hillsborough, he too discussed the fact that he had never been more detached from the game in which he made his living. When he was advised to get on with his job, his reply was sharp and poignant. "That's a lot easier to say," he said, "when you're not going to a funeral every day of the week."

It is something the players of Bolton might say in the terrible wait to know the fate of Fabrice Muamba.

Others will no doubt point out that in other less publicised walks of life, there is for so many the daily obligation to move on with their lives despite the most discouraging events. Awful things happen, they will say, but what can we do if we do not proceed as best we can?

Also to be considered is the integrity of the FA Cup, a tournament which over recent years has taken so many hits to its claim to have an enduring status as a major competition. For Bolton to withdraw because of their players' reluctance to face an admittedly difficult prospect, would not speak highly of the resolution of a club which for so long has taken such proprietorial pride in one of its greatest heroes, the late Lion of Vienna, Nat Lofthouse.

Better, infinitely, for Bolton to show the kind of determination and nerve and maturity produced so abundantly by the young man who lies stricken in hospital. If the Bolton players want a cause, there could be no better one than to fight on – in his name and his image.

Neville sadly falls foul of Premier League hype

Gary Neville has received much praise – and not least here – for his impressive progress as a football analyst of serious intent and bold, professional opinion.

It was thus especially disappointing to read his long and flattering missive on behalf of the Premier League and, of course, perhaps incidentally the league's and his own principal paymaster, Sky Television.

Despite the dismissal from the second tier Europa League of his former club Manchester United and their only title rivals Manchester City, Neville asserts that the Premier League remains the best in the world – a fact thoroughly endorsed, he says, by global TV hits.

No matter that Barcelona and Real Madrid are currently operating on a different planet, that La Liga has won four of the last 10 Champions League finals, Serie A three and the Premier League merely two, and that in two of the last three Barça have not so much beaten United as dismissed them from their presence, Neville massages the statistics as a key part of his argument.

He tells us that the Premier League is currently suffering a mere blip.

Presumably he missed the quality of the football which Athletic Bilbao imposed upon United last week – and the fact that the victors have long had only a distant view of the backs of Real and Barça in the race for La Liga title.

The reason for that first impact, Gary, was that we heard an authentic football voice. It made such a bracing change from all the hype.

Mallett's claims still hard to ignore

Some believe that the Rugby Fooball Union is observing a mere courtesy by interviewing Nick Mallett under the shadow of the achievements of interim coach Stuart Lancaster.

Indeed, there is a theory that any delay in the latter's coronation is nothing less than perverse.

There is, however, an argument for hearing both cases. Lancaster has, no doubt, done a fine job in providing England with the momentum that has carried them away from the ruins of the Martin Johnson administration. But does he have the depth of international experience that will be required to turn an encouraging burst of redemption into the kind of enduring improvement for which the resources of English rugby cry out?

Lancaster enjoys enthusiastic support from his players, but in the circumstances who can be surprised? And maybe we should not forget the wilted nature of the red rose after the last surge of player power. Mallett would bring the aura of a proven coach on the big stage – and a degree of independent thinking. Sooner or later, that could well be the key to everything.

Belfast Telegraph


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