Almost a year has passed since the day that football will never forget.
March 17, 2012. White Hart Lane, London. A drab FA cup Quarter Final between Tottenham Hotspur and Bolton Wanderers was deadlocked at 1-1 and heading for half time.
Then Bolton’s Fabrice Muamba suffered a cardiac arrest on the field.
Chaotic scenes ensued in the game that was being beamed live around the world.
Millions watched as medics rushed to try resuscitating the stricken midfielder. By sheer luck, a heart specialist from a local hospital, Spurs fan Andrew Deaner, was in the crowd. He rushed on to the pitch to join in the attempts.
Players from both sides watched helplessly, transfixed and speechless as a fellow young professional lay dying before their eyes. And referee Howard Webb was right in the thick of it all. “I’ve never seen anything like it in all my time in the English Premier League,” Webb said.
“As a referee, the priority is always to give the highest level of priority to player welfare and ensure their safety above everything else.
“There has been incidents like it in Italy and Scotland, and everyone would have handled it in the same way I did.
“I just had to hand the situation over to the medical team, let them do what they do, and it was wonderful to see a successful outcome - which, of course, is not always the case.”
Muamba’s cardiac arrest saw his heart stop for 76 minutes.
“I didn’t know Fabrice as an individual, but to stand there and watch that first hand, as a human being, was distressing,” Webb said. “I felt numb.
“As a police officer I’ve seen that kind of thing before, but not as a referee. You don’t expect to see anything like that on the football field.
“I was in a state of shock, and driving up the M1 that evening, and hearing it on the news... I was numb. It’s fair to say that it’s something I’ll never forget, and something I never want to see again. I’ll remember that day forever, I guess.”
In his first newspaper interview since the incident, Muamba revealed that the last thing he remembers is teammate Zat Knight shouting at him to ‘come back’ and defend.
As one of Bolton’s fittest and most energetic players, he tried. But stricken by a crippling headache, he couldn’t.
Next came a bout of blurred vision, he recalled.
Then nothing. By the time he collapsed on the turf, he was dead.
For almost the length of a football game, medics worked on Muamba, both at the ground and at London’s Chest Hospital, with adrenalin injections, massage and the vigorous application of a defibrillator.
Still nothing. Doctors then tried one last roll of the dice - the equivalent of sending your goalkeeper up for a corner in the last minute of the game.
And under an electrical stimulus, his heart inexplicably began to beat again.
Just as his team mate Knight had told him to, Muamba did come back.
“You don’t expect something like that to happen, and of course it has an effect on you,” Webb said.
“We were lucky in a way that the incident happened when the ball was out of play, so I didn’t have a decision to make whether to stop the game or not.
“It was obvious I had to go and check on him, because the way he fell suggested that it was something serious.
“He was face down, and there was no-one around me, so he hadn’t been tackled or hit by someone.
“Fortunately, due to the quick response and expertise he received, he’s here to tell the tale today.”
Ex-players mission to save lives
Muamba was discharged from hospital on April 16, almost a month after the incident, having been fitted with an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator.
The former England Under-21 international never played professional football again, retiring in August on health grounds.
Following his retirement, Muamba teamed up with Arrhythmia Alliance, the Heart Rhythm Charity, to launch a campaign to help prevent cardiac arrest deaths.
Webb, too, is determined to use the incident to highlight the importance of CPR training and defibrillator usage.
Last year the country’s top referee visited Oakwood School in Rotherham, the school his children attend, to hand over a lifeline defibrillator donated by Martek Medical on behalf of charity Hand on Heart.
Webb spoke to the assembled children about the Muamba incident and said he was staggered by the statistic that 12 people under 35 die of cardiac arrest every week in the United Kingdom. “The chances of survival if a young person suffers a cardiac arrest are so low,” said Webb, who officiated his first Premier League game in 2003.
“That figure of 12a week stunned me, but that figure is still far too many.
“I was made aware that day of how important the first response is. I hope this equipment is never needed, but you never know what can happen – as shown by that day at White Hart Lane.”
Webb added that, as a FIFA referee, he isn’t trained to use a defibrillator.
He does, however, wear a heart monitor for every game and every training session and the results are measured by sports scientists. He was also given an electrocardiography (ECG) scan in the build up to the 2010 and 2014 World Cups.
“It’s reassuring that we have that level of support to back us up,” Webb said.
“Luckily, we always have someone on hand who is medically qualified, but of course that isn’t always the case at grassroots level. I’d like to think that someone at every level can be trained how to act in a similar situation, be it a coach, referee or parent.
“We can’t have a defibrillator at every pitch in the country, of course, but the more the better, especially at communal pitches where a lot of games take place.”
The average survival rate of someone who collapses from sudden cardiac arrest is just 6 per cent. When the defibrillator is used alongside ‘early and effective CPR’, however, that survival rate leaps to 74 per cent.
In the year since Muamba’s miracle, it is estimated that 500 people under 30 have died after suffering a cardiac arrest.
“Step by step, people are becoming more aware of the importance of these defibrillators,” Webb said. “They could save someone’s life.”
And if they do, then some good will have come from the day that rocked football one year ago.