No making tea for this new boy! Chris's first task is to ghostwrite the Fabrice Muamba story

As first assignments go, it wasn't a bad one.  Sports journalist Chris Brereton, newly recruited by publishers Trinity Mirror Sports Media and still readjusting to life back in the UK after a year in Thailand, was asked if he fancied ghosting an autobiography. 

He had never written a book before but when he learned that the subject was footballer Fabrice Muamba, there was only going to be one answer.   The schedule set out was almost impossible -- it was already August and the book was due in the shops in early November -- yet the Muamba story, of the young Bolton Wanderers player who collapsed on the field during a match at Tottenham Hotspur and was effectively brought back from the dead, was too good to turn down.

"From a journalist's point of view it has been the story of 2012," Brereton said. "I had been working on the Bangkok Post but the impact of Fabrice's story was just as big over there.

"The English Premier League is massive in Thailand and even though I was 6,000 miles away from where it was happening, for that moment, as people became aware of the drama taking place, I got the impression that the entire footballing world was as one.

"It was a story that showed how strong football can be when it decides to unite in a positive direction and it was one that transcended the game.  My mother, for example, has never watched a football match in her life but when I told her I was doing the Fabrice Muamba book she knew instantly who he was."

Having agreed to take on the project, 30-year-old Brereton quickly became glad of the tough grounding he had been given working for sports news agencies Hayters and Wardles, where reporters seldom have the benefit of time on their side.

"There have been a lot of 17-18 hour days, a lot of working weekends, but in one sense my naivety has been a good thing because I was not daunted by the task.  Having worked at Wardles, where the onus was on you to get to the nub of an issue and turn around copy very quickly, and having worked to very tight deadlines in Bangkok, I am used to working under pressure and that held me in good stead.

"From the day I met Fabrice for the first time at Mottram Hall Hotel near Wilmslow in Cheshire, to signing the book off to the printers, was 38 days.

"If had written half a dozen books that had all taken six months or more such a tight turnaround might have been a bit daunting.  But I just rolled up my sleeves and jumped in and it has been a wonderful experience."

Muamba had a compelling story to tell even without what happened last March, when he suffered his cardiac arrest during an FA Cup quarter-final at White Hart Lane.  Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo during the height of civil war, he was left behind in Kinshasa when his father, a government advisor, had to flee to London to escape rebel fighters who had set out to kill him.
'A tale of hard work, luck, perseverance...even fear'
He and his mother Gertrude were reunited with father Marcel only when Marcel was finally given leave to stay in London after several years living in asylum centres and the family were allowed to join him.  In the meantime, Fabrice had been more or less in hiding, moved from one home to another by his uncle, Ilunga, who eventually was killed.

"It is the kind of story that, if you walked into the office of a Hollywood studio executive and said I want to pitch you an idea and told him the story of Fabrice's life, you'd be laughed out of there because it really is a story that's stranger than fiction," Brereton said.

"His father had to leave Congo because he was under threat, because he worked for the president, and Fabrice did not see his father for five years.  He came to England when he was 11, not speaking a word of English, a young African coming to live in Walthamstow in London with all the challenges that brings.

"He gets the chance to go along to Arsenal because one of his friends is training there.  He tags along and gets spotted and before you know it he is playing in the Premier League, the best league in the world.

"It is a ludicrously implausible tale of hard work, luck, perseverance and even fear because he was terrified for a long time in Congo because of the civil war there.

"If you stop it there it is still a remarkable story, but when you add March 17 on top of that it makes a story that transcends everything.  It is not a football book but a book about a footballer with an amazing story to tell."

Central to the story is Muamba's recollection of events and his efforts to make sense of what happened, to assess the impact on his life and to convey the thoughts and feelings and emotions he has experienced, although he has no memory at all of the 78 minutes in which he was technically dead.

"When he was 'dead' he feels he wasn't there to worry about himself.  When he came round in hospital he had no idea that the world had been hanging on every medical bulletin, he had no recollection of what had happened, no memory of it, no comprehension of it

"So for the details of what happened, there are interviews with Dr Andrew Deaner, the cardiologist who came down from the stands at White Hart Lane, and with Dr Jonathan Tobin, the Bolton Wanderers club doctor, who played such a big part too.

"We have spoken also to the first paramedic on the scene, to the Bolton club chaplain, to Owen Coyle, the manager.  It is a very comprehensive account of what happened that perhaps  give people a different perspective on their own lives, knowing that if a 24-year-old can collapse face first at White Hart Lane then who knows what fate has in store for any of us."
'Fabrice feels he is in the driving seat, but God is doing the steering.'
The relationship between a subject and his ghost need not be a friendship.  In some cases, too much familiarity can be a hindrance, since there are often issues that require the kind of probing questions that a close acquaintance may feel uncomfortable about asking, and lack a little objectivity.  But it is essential that the collaborators get along.

Happily, Brereton and Muamba were soon comfortable in each other's company.

"I'd spoken to people who knew him and the general view among football folk was that, to use their expression, a 'top lad'," Brereton said. "In other words, a nice guy, and I found him to be a well-mannered, clearly well brought-up young man.

"We clicked straight away. He would come to Mottram Hall always on time, always very polite, and he'd ask for nothing more than a hot chocolate.  People would come up to him from time to time.  One day there was a wedding and the groom was having a pre-ceremony pint to calm his nerves and he spotted Fabrice and nervously came over but Fabrice was happy to have his picture taken with him and talk to the other guests.  He is a very pleasant, very intelligent guy, the polar opposite to the stereotypical image of the modern footballer.

"He was honest, straightforward, a good talker -- from my point of view a dream.  His now-wife Shauna came along sometimes and she was just as impressive, straight down the line, very unaffected by fame.

"What I learned about his character is that he is very religious and he believes that what happened in March was part of God's bigger plan.  He feels that in life he might be in the driving seat but God is doing the steering.

"There have been points, and they are chronicled in the book, when he hoped his career was not over, which is natural.  But when he was told that effectively he was finished as a footballer, he straightened his tie and got on with his life.   If you have a career-ending knee injury at 23 you might have a degree of bitterness but with Fab because of the severity of what happened, because he was to all intents dead, any thoughts about 'what if' relating to his career take second place to the feeling that every day is a bonus.

"He does not yet know what he is going to do with his life.  His health is monitored, as you would expect, and he has been fitted with an implanted defibrillator, so that if his heart rhythm is thrown out again the device would administer a shock to set it right again.   He can do some light exercise and there is no cause for concern now.

"He enjoys doing media work, which he is getting very polished at, and he wants to use his story to inspire people, perhaps disaffected youths, maybe even go into prisons, to tell people that if he could come back from the dead then anything is possible.  He believes very strongly in that.

"But in other ways he has his life ahead of him and while he assesses what to do with it he is just enjoying being alive, appreciating things that other people might regard as mundane.

"I thoroughly enjoyed working with him and I'm honoured to have played a small part in his story."

Fabrice Muamba: I'm Still Standing is published by Trinity Mirror Sport Media.

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