Interview

‘Think of the worst hangover you’ve ever had then add a whole new level on top…I’d had better days’

CHRIS BRERETON on the amazing story of Fabrice Muamba’s autobiography which was written in 38 days

By CHRISTOPHER DAVIES

CHRIS BRERETON was watching Tottenham Hotspur versus Bolton Wanderers in a bar in Bangkok when Fabrice Muamba collapsed on the White Hart Lane surface on March 17, 2012 in an FA Cup quarter-finals tie.

As the chief sports sub editor for the English language Bangkok Post, Brereton felt both personal and professional emotions; sadness for the player but aware that it was a huge story. Little did Brereton know that as Muamba began his recovery he would be ghost-writing his autobiography I’m Still Standing.

Brereton, who previously worked for Wardles sports agency before the chance to work in the Far East came about, said: “I was as gobsmacked as the rest of the world when the incident happened. I went into work the next day and it was front and back page lead.

“Six months later I was helping Muamba write his autobiography.”

As the country was gearing up for London 2012, Brereton was offered the opportunity to return to England by Trinity Mirror Sport Media. “I got back on August 11th, I started work on the 13th and a few days later we began talks with Muamba’s representatives about the book. On my third day with the company Steve Hanrahan, my senior editor, walked over to me and asked me a ridiculous question – had I ever written an autobiography in six weeks? No, I hadn’t was the obvious and accurate response. Writing a book from start to finish in six weeks? That’s impossible.”

No it isn’t. Brereton completed the near 100,000 words in a remarkable 38 days. To write a book in three months would be an exercise to test any journalist, but 38 days is mission almost impossible.

Brereton said: I had covered Bolton games for Wardles, but had never met Fabrice before we got together at his agent’s office in London on September 7. It was like ‘hi…we have to get to know each other very quickly.’

“What helped me with the tight schedule was having worked for Wardles and before that, for Hayters, you become used to turning copy round very quickly.”

For just over six weeks Muamba dominated Brereton’s life as his Groundhog Day existence kicked in. While there was far less time than usual for research, Brereton said: “In fact, I never stopped researching his life to the extent I was dreaming about him.”

From September 11 Brereton would interview Muamba for two hours daily, transcribe the tape and then write it into Muamba’s words.

Brereton said: “It can be very intense talking about every detail of your life…where Fabrice were brought up, what the house was like, his first pair of football boots, what food he loved, what growing up in DR Congo was like…you can only go so far each day. We spoke in the morning from about half past nine, we’d chat for a couple of hours with breaks, I’d leave lunch-time, go home and start working on it. To say I lived and breathed the book is no exaggeration. We’re talking 20-hour days at times.”

What helped Brereton was the help and co-operation of the medical staff involved with saving Muamba’s life, plus his parents and Bolton manager at the time Owen Coyle…“it was old-fashioned journalism, just hammering the phones,” said Brereton. “I’d pull into a service station on the M6, chat to someone on speakerphone as my dictaphone was recording it while also taking it down in shorthand.”

Muamba’s story was rather more challenging than reporting about zonal marking or the benefits of two holding midfielders. The B-grade in biology Brereton achieved in 1998 was of little help when it came to writing about a ventricular tachycardia is [it’s a rapid heartbeat to save you Googling].

Brereton said: “The high regard in which Fabrice is held was clearly shown by the willingness of everyone to help. Everybody. If I had to leave a message for a doctor or specialist, they returned the call the same day and gave me as much time as I needed, explaining the medical details and procedures.

“Mark Alderton, the Bolton press officer, and Owen Coyle couldn’t have been more co-operative while Phil Mason, the club chaplain who prayed with Fabrice in his room, was also brilliant. Despite his heavy schedule, Owen invited me into his office and gave me three hours uninterrupted, offering me an enormous amount of information and colour.”

Brereton’s early days as a news reporter on the Salford Advertiser helped as he complied the book, not least the 78 minutes after Muamba collapsed following his cardiac arrest – the player calls it “78 minutes of nothing”.

The proofs were read and approved by Muamba plus the doctors, paramedics and consultant cardiologists while Brereton paid tribute to Ken Rogers, executive editor of Trinity Mirror Sport Media and the rest of the editorial team who worked round to clock to meet the October 19 deadline.

The result is a fascinating if harrowing insight into the ultimate recovery. Muamba recalls the moment he came back from the dead: “When I opened my eyes I’ve never EVER felt worse. Think of the worst hangover you’ve ever had then add a whole new level on top. Groggy, exhausted, useless.

“It felt like I was dying. I looked down and saw this hospital gown covering me up. Two big pillows and a hospital gown? Is this a wind up? I couldn’t even begin to understand the situation.

“What is going on here? Where am I? Just total confusion. I had a head full of fluff but I looked again to my right to see [wife] Shauna.

“My skin felt like it wasn’t part of my body. At that moment in time somebody had stolen my arms and legs and my brain felt brainless. I’d had better days.

“You’ve got to remember that if you fall off a ladder or you are in a bus crash or whatever, when you wake up you can probably remember a little of the build up to what happened. You can slowly piece together the past so you can work out why you’re in a hospital bed. But I had none of that luck. I’d gone from kicking a football around to being surrounded by people crying just because when they asked me how I was, I told them I was ‘OK.’ It doesn’t get much weirder than that and it really freaked me out.”

Muamba has a rather more trivial problem at the moment. His legs are sore as he prepares for a stint on Strictly Come Dancing. After everything else he’s beaten, he should waltz through his next challenge.

*Fabrice Muamba – I’m Still Standing (published by Sport Media, £12.99). You can follow Chris Brereton on Twitter: @chrisbrereton1.

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