Sometimes football just gets in the way

I’ve had a few goes at writing the opening to this post, so let’s get straight to the point: Why did we do a minute’s applause for Fabrice Muamba before Tuesday’s game against Wimbledon?

It turns out that I’m not the only one who found it an odd spectacle. We all stood dutifully and participated when told to by Peter Rhodes-Brown. Eventually someone suggested on Twitter that he found it uncomfortable it wasn’t long before others came out blinking into the sunlight, like hiding refugees after a military junta had been overthrown.

Years ago minute silences were rare, perhaps no more than one a year. They resulted from the passing of a genuine legend of the club and, as a result, were often disrupted by disinterested away fans. During the early 90s, the phrase ‘impeccably observed’ began to appear in the football lexicon. It was considered a mark of football’s renaissance; its new found humanity.

It really jumped the shark in 2002 when fans were expected to observe a moment’s contemplation in respect for the Soham murders. I was on holiday as the tragedy unfolded, the detachment that offered made me question why it was happening. The only link it seemed to have to football was that the girls were wearing Manchester United shirts when they went missing.

It wasn’t the first non-football silence. A year earlier, we’d marked 9/11 before a gutless home defeat to Macclesfield. But the world seemed to have tipped on its axis and so it was deemed an acceptable diversion. The death of George Best in 2005 introduced a more celebratory mood with the minute’s applause.

Now, however, almost every Very Bad Thing (VBT) demands a moment of collective expression. Tuesday night was new because, well, Fabrice Muamba isn’t dead. It’s no hardship to participate in a minute’s applause, of course, but this does seem to have become the stock response of the emotionally stunted. It seems we can’t be trusted to find an appropriate, personal, private response to VBTs. Fabrice Muamba’s case is shocking in that you don’t expect healthy 23 year-olds to have near fatal heart attacks, but why do we need to a minute’s applause to support him? Why would anyone not support a young family man struck down like this?

Henry Winter, on the radio, claimed it was because Muamba is a role model profession with a exceptional back-story. It seems that he is the antithesis of what is typically considered to be the professional football stereotype. However, to say that the applause was specific to Muamba possibly overstates just how much interest people really have in Premier League sub-plots. When it was first reported, I thought they meant Christian Samba. Although it turns out he was a goalkeeper in the Republic of Congo and in fact I was thinking about Christopher Samba. Who, apparently, doesn’t even play in England at the moment.

No, we did the round of applause because it was what we were told to do. If Muamba was an average-Joe who’d collapsed in Tesco, nobody would have felt the urge for a public outpouring. And yet it is no less tragic or shocking. This is something not specific to an ill young man, but specific to football. Football simply won’t allow a normal response to these incidences. It has acquired almost magical healing powers – it is no longer a game, but a collective spiritual force delivered through the rather sinister sounding ‘football family’. In a passive aggressive response, we piously ‘put football into perspective’ by relegating its importance at times like this. As though any rational thinking human being considers a life to have less importance than football, or, indeed, whether there is any need or point to run a league table of such things. There is a kind of ‘look-at-me’ thing, look at how much we care, which is specific to football. I would love to blame corporate greed or the Premier League, but I think we’ve been sleepwalking into it for years.

Owen Coyle and Kevin Davies have both acted impeccably in trying to create some space around Muamba’s story. Coyle has been at pains to stress the importance of looking at this from a dispassionate medical stance. The fact Muamba is still alive is remarkable, but we shouldn’t get too carried away with ideas that this is a miracle which will see him spring from his bed and dribble a ball into the street. This isn’t Roy of the Rovers.

Davies was questioned on whether the quarter-final against Spurs would be replayed. Like we’d slipped back into the idea that the world is just one big league title; ‘Kevin, big game for Life on Saturday, can we expect Football to hit back and regain top spot soon?’. Davies, quite rightly, but more importantly, quite normally, disassociated the football talk as irrelevant. One of his mate’s has been taken ill, and before he does anything else, he wants him to recover.

The frequency with which the minute’s silence is now observed, and now the almost limitless range of VBTs to inlude QBTs (Quite Bad Things) and NVBTs (Not Very Bad Things) that it is apparently appropriate to observe it masks that this, above all, was a triumph of medical science. By all means wish him well and hope for a speedy recovery, but don’t applaud Fabrice Muamba, save the NHS.