Former midfielder Fabrice Muamba has a new role advising players to plan for a future out of the game. Phil Hay reports.
He assumed that he would call on it at some point in his late 30s. But 78 minutes without a heartbeat changed all that. Those minutes changed his life.
Muamba’s survival from cardiac arrest was against the odds and for that he is deeply grateful.
But when the trauma of his experience in 2012 subsided he was a 24-year-old with his whole life in front of him and no job to fill it with. A heart specialist in Belgium told him that continuing as a professional footballer was out of the question.
The first lesson taken from his collapse on the pitch during an FA Cup tie between Tottenham Hotspur and Bolton Wanderers was the importance of screening and monitoring the health of players in England.
But for the past few months Muamba has been spreading a different message: the need to plan for a “rainy day”, as he gently describes the call of early retirement.
Muamba is employed by the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) with the remit of visiting professional clubs and lecturing academy prospects in the reality of life after football.
Lecturing is not really his style and he is wary of being cast as a dream-snatcher but Muamba has a compelling story to tell. It falls on few deaf ears.
Leeds United hosted him on Thursday afternoon, inviting Muamba to speak to their first and second-year scholars about the implementation of a lifeplan.
After watching United’s manager, Brian McDermott, and new signing Dexter Blackstock hold court with the media and clear out, the former Bolton, Arsenal and Birmingham City midfielder was given the stage in the press room at Thorp Arch.
“We try to guide young players about getting an education because you never know when something’s going to happen to you,” Muamba said. “I don’t want to wish bad things on people but you need a Plan B in case you have a rainy day.
“I had a Plan B but I was hoping to use it when I was 35, not when I was 24. The way things happened I’ve had to use it now.
“These lads I’m speaking to are very young at 17 and 18 and they’re excited about getting into the game of football. I don’t want to ruin their dream but I do want to pick their brains and say ‘bear all this in mind.’
“The advice I give the first and second years is to be wise about their football careers because fast as it comes, it can go just as fast.
“You’ve got to be open-minded about the opportunity in front of you but be wise also about the fact that it can all be taken away from you in the space of a second. It happened to me.”
Muamba is a picture of good health, disguising the severity of heart attack which almost killed him 19 months ago.
He was treated by medical staff and a supporter at the game between Spurs and Bolton at White Hart Lane and saved by specialist treatment at the London Chest Hospital.
A fortnight after his cardiac arrest, Muamba was pictured sitting up in a hospital bed smiling broadly. His recovery was “more than a miracle”, he said. “I was dead.”
He clung to the thought of restarting his playing career but was advised to retire by a leading cardiologist five months later. He and Bolton made the announcement days before the start of the 2012-13 Premier League season.
“It took a couple of months to realise that this might be the end of football for me,” he said. “To realise that this is it.
“I was always hoping that I might come back and play again but when I went to see the specialist in Belgium, he put a realistic check on me. I knew that I had to call it a day and move on.
“It wasn’t easy but I’m very grateful just to be alive and to be able to do different things. I don’t worry about what’s happened because I’ve got no control over it.
“All I can control is what’s in front of me and what I try to do myself.
“I can try to help the younger guys who are coming into the game now. It’s so important to have a Plan B.”
Muamba is training to become a journalist as many retired sportsmen do. Television, radio, newspapers, the Internet? Which form of reporting would he prefer?
“You have to be into everything these days,” he said, “so I’m learning all four. It’s eye-opening, put it that way.
“I’ve been doing work for the PFA for a couple of months now, going to different clubs and speaking to guys about planning ahead in your career. You’re only one injury away from calling it a day.
“It’s interesting for me because you see things differently. You don’t see life as a footballer any more. You see it as an ex-player.
“You start to appreciate what everyone else does for you and you also get to embrace the challenge that life brings. You’ve got to enjoy it.”
Injury is not the only threat to aspiring apprentices at Thorp Arch and other academies. Competition presents a hurdle too. Official figures show that around 45 per cent of trainees in the Football League go on to receive professional contracts. The rest are left to fall back on the education they receive as part of scholarships run by clubs like Leeds. And as Muamba found in appalling circumstances, a highly-paid career as a sportsman can be here today but gone tomorrow.
“You get to see a lot of different boys,” Muamba said. “Some of them are open-minded and some of them aren’t interested.
“All I can do is say ‘listen, you’re one injury from being like the rest of us.’
“I hope that doesn’t happen. You want everyone to stay injury-free and enjoy their careers in football. But it doesn’t always work out that way. I know that.”