BY TOBY DENNETT
Thursday, November 8, 2007. The previous season, Bolton Wanderers achieved their highest finish in the Premier League era – seventh position. 2007 was a strange year for Premier League football. It felt as if the British game had come a long way since its inception; the latest generation of top-flight stars a million miles from the fledging Premier League days of the early 90s. Finally freed from the shackles of ‘fucking get it in the mixer’ and ‘don’t let it bounce’, teams such as Portsmouth, Blackburn and Reading were going through evolutionary stages in their history. Fans saw them swap sodden pitches and 4-4-2 for glamorous foreign imports with audacious talents, plucked from the terracotta streets of the Mediterranean or the picturesque beaches of Rio and dropped into a drizzling, dreary satellite town to beguile and enthral punters who had seen decades of non-descript footballing sludge.
Countless faceless men have trudged onto the pitch in the years previous – 200, maybe 300 times. They retire and that’s it. No pubs, no after dinner speaking gigs. One day they are trotting out at Elm Park, the next they are making birdhouses in a flat pack shed in Pangbourne. 213 appearances, 15 goals, dissolved into the annals of time simply for being so unbelievably fucking uninspiring. But not in 2007. That didn’t happen anymore. Thanks to television deals and continuing success in Europe for English sides, everyone wanted a taste of the Premier League. This led to some strangely beautiful transfers. Now every team could lay claim to possessing their own superstar. Blackburn had Morten Gamst Pedersen; Middlesbrough secured the signatures of Mido and the prolific Alfonso Alves and Portsmouth were blessed with Lassana Diarra, Niko Kranjcar and Sulley Muntari, who all went on to taste European success in one way or another.
But if ever a small team was treated to a seat at the big table, it was Bolton in 2007/08. On the back of that seventh place finish the previous season, it all changed in the Pennines as Big Sam Allardyce resigned three games before the end of the season. Gary Megson stepped in to fill the void. The ever dependable and long serving Gary Speed left, star striker Nicolas Anelka would be sold to Chelsea in a £15million January deal and Bolton struggled to find their form in the early stages of the season.
However, it wasn’t all doom and gloom at the Reebok. For only the second time in their history, Bolton Wanderers qualified for European football, and boy did they make the most of it. In the wake of Allardyce’s departure, the no-nonsense and oft mistaken for a heating oil delivery driver, Gary Megson took the reins at Bolton. Suffice to say that ‘Mego’ had a difficult start to life at the Reebok. His first thirteen league games left the Trotters with just a solitary win against a Reading side that wouldn’t survive the season. On the September evening of their first European tie, Bolton had just three points on the board. In order to qualify for the first round of the UEFA Cup, Bolton needed to come out on top in a double header against Macedonian no-marks FK Rabotnički. An 84th minute Abdoulaye Méïté strike levelled the scores at 1-1 in the first leg. All nerves were alleviated in the second leg as a single Anelka goal saw Bolton through to the group stage proper.
Then came the draw.
Aris of Greece, Red Star Belgrade of Serbia and Braga of Portugal raised few eyebrows. The main event was 5-time European Champions and serial winners Bayern Munich.
After an uninspiring opening game – a 1-1 draw with Braga – the pressure was already on Megson to come away from the Allianz Arena with a positive result. Sitting 19th in the league, and with the odds firmly stacked against them, Bolton boarded a plane and headed to Germany.
To make the insurmountable challenge of grinding a result at one of the bastions of European football even trickier, Bolton were without the influential trio of Ivan Campo, El-Hadji Diouf and Anelka.
Bolton, in pristine white, took to the field expecting what can only be described as a career defining hiding. A beating so severe, you’d be left lifeless on the floor, blood soaked and alone; imagine that kid from The Simpsons crying ‘Stop, stop. He’s already dead’ as the ruthless German winning machine steamrolls you out of existence. Eight minutes in, however…
7 minutes and 10 seconds is how long it took Bolton to shock the footballing world and take the lead against one of the most successful sporting organisations in history. Rather fittingly, the scorer of that goal was Bolton legend Ricardo Gardner. Jamaica’s captain broke the d(r)eadlock, with one of the most Bolton-esque goals you will ever witness. A long throw-in from the terrifyingly scouse Kevin Nolan pinballed its way around the box before dropping kindly for the arriving Gardner to smash artistically into a Bayern defender, leaving professional angry man Oliver Kahn stranded, and angry, on the turf as the ball bounced over his head and into the net.
Bolton’s resistance lasted all of 20 minutes as Bayern stitched together a flowing move; Ribery combining with Schweinsteiger, who teed up Lucas Podolski to smash home from 18 yards.
Three minutes after the restart, again, Ribery sliced through the Bolton back line as he evaded challenges to put it on a plate for Podolski’s second. It seemed that the natural order had been restored. Bolton’s early ecstasy had subsided; big German Goliath had once again done one over on little old David from Greater Manchester. However, in a confusing and convoluted twist of fate, Bayern had an Achilles heel. The Great British long throw.
Andranik Teymourian, battling against two opposition players, won himself a throw in Bayern’s half. He launched it with Herculean force towards Kevin Nolan, who at this exact moment became possessed by English jingoism and became a vessel for Paul Gascoigne circa 1996. Not once, but twice, Nolan with the balletic grace of several gazelles, flicks the ball over two onrushing Bayern defenders, before laying it off to Kevin Davies. With his back to goal, Davies, in a kind of low-resolution tribute to Zinedine Zidane, planted his left leg and thundered home a volley past the helpless, and by this point apoplectic, Kahn. Bolton survived several late scares to hold on to a miraculous 2-2 draw.
That night, Ali Al Habsi outshone the imperious Oliver Kahn. Lubomir Michalik, whose clubs include Carlisle United and a League 1-era Leeds United, was pitted against the World Cup’s all-time leading goal scorer, Miroslav Klose.
It was a bizarre flash in the pan of footballing mismatches that transcended expectations and tradition and lead to arguably one of the greatest nights in Bolton’s history. Andrew O’Brien had to deal with Franck Ribery and Bastian Schweinsteiger for fuck’s sake. Gavin McCann was on the pitch the entire time. He played literally 90 -plus minutes against Oliver Kahn (World Cup finalist), Lucio (World Cup winner), Bastian Schweinsteiger (future World Cup winner) Mark van Bommel (scariest bloke going) and he finished the game as their equal. God knows what he was doing there, but for one evening everything seemed to slot into place, a perfect shit-storm of British pride and grit deflecting the ruthless efficiency and precision of a German footballing superpower. Toni Kroos played the last 30 minutes. That’s how recently this game happened.
Buoyed by the Bayern result, Bolton went on to qualify for the knockout stages, where they overcame an Atletico Madrid side with Diego Forlan and Sergio Aguero up top, before eventually succumbing to a narrow defeat at the hands of Sporting Lisbon.
Megson – the puppeteer, the orchestrator – confounded his critics, laughing in the face of all those who hounded him on the street, and laughed as they shouted ‘Gary Megson, you are nothing more than a boiler repair man.’ For one magical night in Bavaria, Gary John Megson was much more than a boiler repairman, and Bolton were much more than football team.
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