Fabrice Muamba admitted he "wished he was playing today" before receiving an emotional reception on the Reebok Stadium pitch ahead of Bolton Wanderers' 4-1 defeat by Tottenham Hotspur, the midfielder's first visit to a football match since his cardiac arrest.
As he walked alone on to the pitch supporters from each team chanted his name, visibly moving the midfielder who could be seen wiping tears from his eyes. Muamba had been recuperating since collapsing during an FA Cup quarter-final between Tottenham and Bolton at White Hart Lane on 17 March, after which his heart stopped for 78 minutes. Asked how he was now, Muamba said: "I'm OK. I'm getting stronger every day. I'm happy to be back, happy to see the fans outside. I'm overwhelmed by the support."
The 24-year-old stated it was emotional to be back at the Reebok. "This is a special place – if you play for this football club you'll know how special it is – the support I've got has overwhelmed me. I'm very excited for today's game, happy that I came because I really wanted to come to support the boys and I'm just happy with the support I've got."
Following the cardiac arrest the midfielder received support from all over the world. "It helps me every single day," he said. "I've still got about six or seven boxes to go through of well-wishers' cards and I'm grateful for that. The support I got is overwhelming. It stays in my mind every single day. So this is keeping me going every single day."
The Bolton manager, Owen Coyle, spoke of the club's delight to have Muamba back but urged caution over the prospect of his playing any time soon. "To see Fabrice here tonight – it was quite emotional as you can imagine and we're absolutely delighted at his recovery - that's paramount for Fabrice and his family and I've always said that. I think it is too early to say [if he will play again]. He's certainly going in the right direction in terms of improving and that'll be something that is in consultation with the medical people.
To the Bolton fans Muamba said: "Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you – not just the Bolton fans but the whole country. The support has been overwhelming and I'm just grateful I can walk again and do things normally again. I wish I was playing."
Muamba visited the players' lounge before the game and talked to Harry Redknapp. "It's fantastic to see him," said the Tottenham manager. "Last time I saw him was when he was being wheeled down the tunnel and I'd be a liar if I said I thought I'd ever see him again because it was desperate, absolutely desperate. I think all the medical staff thought that night it was a situation beyond retrieval. To see him here tonight with a smile on his face is absolutely brilliant. That's what life's about."
On the way to the stadium Mumaba had tweeted: "It's such a special day … on my way to the Rebook with@ShaunaMuamba God is good!" In two tweets Muamba's fiancee, Shauna, said: "Reebok stadium how I've missed u. Come on Bolton we can do this" and: "thanks honey its feels so good like coming home to a warm house and a cup of tea BLISS!!"