WHEN I dart through the December sleet from a press conference at Euxton to meet Fabrice Muamba at the Reebok, I am his fifth and final interview of a long day.
A slew of half-eaten sausage rolls and half-empty coffee cups indicate the media clamour to speak with him certainly hadn’t died down but – barring a local radio man hanging around to pre-record a Christmas message to the listeners – this was the last time Fabrice would have to recall “that day”.
I’d made him wait, but I figured he owed me. After all, he had spoken chapter and verse for Piers Morgan on CNN and for countless other journalistic luminaries in the months since he officially hung up his boots in August.
He had even released an excellent autobiography that peered out at me from Waterstones window as I did my Christmas shopping.
But this was actually the first time I had sat down for a proper interview with the man himself since I saw him being carried off the pitch at White Hart Lane on a stretcher, unsure whether he was going to live or die.
This was the year that Fabrice Muamba went from being a Premier League midfielder battling to get into the Bolton Wanderers team into a name recognised and respected by virtually anyone on the planet. He is even appearing on Strictly Come Dancing, for goodness sake.
For anyone who somehow missed it all, on March 17, 41 minutes into a frantic televised FA Cup tie at Tottenham, Muamba collapsed after going into cardiac arrest. His heart did not beat on its own for 78 minutes and yet, thanks to the skilled medical attention he got at the time and later at the London Chest Hospital, he is alive to tell the tale.
I’d bumped into the former Bolton News player of the year several times in the months between the ‘Miracle of White Hart Lane’, and despite all the chaos going on around him, Fab has always made time to say hello and keep me updated with his life.
And that’s the thing. In a year that so much has altered for Fab and his young family, he hasn’t changed a jot.
“I don’t see myself as a different person, and I hope other people don’t either,” he told me, a few hours after distributing six life-saving defibrillators around Bolton as part of the Hearts and Goals initiative. “I’m just an ordinary dude who had a cardiac arrest. It happened to be televised around the world.
“I’m still the same old Fabrice. I still sit around watching movies, go to the supermarket to buy my stuff and sit playing Call of Duty until 2am.
“I’m no different than any other 24-year-old. I just want to enjoy my life and spend time with my family because this has been a good year.”
That last bit took me back a bit, so I ask him to repeat it.
“Seriously,” he said. “For me to be alive is more than I could wish for. It might sound strange for people to hear but this has been a great year. I might not even be here.
“That is good enough for me. Living, breathing, being with my family, nothing else matters.”
At the start of the year, Muamba was having a tough enough job just getting into Owen Coyle’s team and on occasion took to Twitter to voice his displeasure.
“Back then I didn’t think about having a cardiac arrest, that’s for sure,” he said.
“It was about being fit, getting in the starting 11, and I wasn’t doing a great job of getting on the pitch.
“Now I can look at a bigger picture and think all that wasn’t worth getting upset over.”
After spending just one minute on the pitch against QPR in what would prove his final Premier League appearance, Muamba knew the FA Cup quarter final against Tottenham was his big chance. He could never have imagined what an effect the events of that night would have on his life.
“I was looking forward to that game so much because I hadn’t been playing,” he said. “We had won the week before and I came off the bench for about 10 seconds.
“I was frustrated. I thought I should be in the team but I wanted to get out there and give the manager something to think about. I wanted to prove a point.
“I look back and know I tried my best. There isn’t anything I can do about it. I’m just lucky that the right people were around to help me at the time.”
Muamba has watched the incident back – once – but, since confirming his playing career was over in August, has been channelling his efforts into raising awareness about cardiac arrest. His rising fame is certainly a tool he intends to use for good.
“Nobody knew who I was and now even Oprah (Winfrey) knows Fabrice Muamba, which is pretty cool,” he said. “But I am just grateful for the help I’ve had and I want to go and make a difference now. Hopefully I can go out there and spread a positive message and raise awareness of cardiac arrests.
“I have learned a lot. I know that cardiac arrests are more common than ever and I have heard people tell me stories of those that were not as lucky.
“Mine happened on a football pitch with everything around me, if it had happened somewhere else we wouldn’t be having this conversation. That’s why I want to help, because I want to save more lives.”
After getting married to his long-time partner, Shauna, a couple of months ago he has a few thoughts on what happens next.
“Not to have another cardiac arrest would be number one,” he said.
“Number two would be to spend more time with friends and family.
“And number three would be to learn another language. I want to speak Spanish.
“I already speak French and my English is pretty good, so I have got a private tutor to help me now. And it’s not Marcos Alonso, before you ask.”
Well, it would have been a good story.
After the book, the documentary and the interviews, surely a movie would be the next port of call for the cinema buff?
“I’m not sure yet, maybe we need to speak with a couple of producers about who is going to play Fabrice,” he smiled. “Denzel (Washington) might be a bit expensive. We’re working on a smaller budget.”
And with that, another interview materialises – an African website – and Fabrice is asked if he has 10 more minutes for a chat. Another call of duty.
“And breathe,” he says through gritted teeth, before returning to that familiar grin. “No problem, pass me the phone.”