LONDON, England, March 22 – Bolton manager Owen Coyle admits his players will find it hard to put Fabrice Muamba out of their minds when they return to action for the first time since the midfielder’s harrowing collapse.
Muamba suffered a cardiac arrest during Bolton’s FA Cup quarter-final at Tottenham last Saturday that left the 23-year-old fighting for his life.
The former Arsenal player has shown encouraging signs of making a miraculous recovery, but is still in intensive care at the London Chest Hospital.
Many of his Bolton team-mates visited Kinshasa-born Muamba earlier this week and Coyle concedes the squad is still coming to terms with the shocking incident.
But after speaking to Muamba’s family, Coyle and his players agreed to carry on with their season, starting with Saturday’s Premier League game against Blackburn at what is sure to be an emotional Reebok Stadium.
“You don’t move on. We have a game to play and we have to go and play it,” Coyle said.
“Will it be difficult? Absolutely. Our thoughts are still with Fabrice Muamba.”
Blackburn’s visit to the Reebok is a crucial fixture for Bolton as they try to climb out of the relegation zone, yet Coyle has told his players that they will be excused from duty if they can’t concentrate on football while Muamba is still in hospital.
“I wouldn’t ask anybody to play who felt they couldn’t,” he said. “So far, no-one has told me they don’t want to be involved.
“There comes a point that we have to play our games and move forward.”
Muamba’s horrific ordeal has touched the football world and a host of Premier League stars have visited the player in hospital, with New York Red Bulls striker Thierry Henry reported to have flown from America to see his former Arsenal team-mate.
Coyle stayed in London for several days while Muamba was recovering.
It was during those long hours of waiting for good news over Muamba’s condition that he was left in no doubt the player’s father Marcel and fiancee Shauna wanted Bolton to return to action
“I spoke to them for over an hour and they were adamant, Bolton had to play their games,” he added.
“Everything does pale into insignificance alongside Fabrice’s recovery. But we will go out there and do our best.”
Doctors have revealed that Muamba’s heart had stopped working for almost 80 minutes after his collapse.
It took 15 defibrillator shocks, two on the pitch and 13 in the ambulance, to get his heart beating again, but he has already recovered sufficiently to talk to family and friends over the last 24 hours.
For a while, Coyle admitted he feared the worse and he admitted he had not slept on Sunday night as Muamba faced the most important part of his recovery.
“Monday was a big day,” said Coyle. “The hospital had cooled him down to try help him and on Monday morning at 8am, they started to warm him back up again.
“That is when Fabrice had to kick in and do things of his own accord to have any chance.
“He did because we know the fighter he is and how strong he is.
“The way he came through that was incredible. Monday was an unbelievable day.
“We are all astonished with how far he has come. But we have to stress he is still in intensive care and he is still seriously ill. He has a long way to go.
“What has happened is encouraging and we have to keep that