BY BOLTON FAN, GILES METCALFE
The last 10 years have seen a mixture of massive highs and crushing lows for Bolton Wanderers and the club’s fans.
Highs include consecutive top-eight finishes in the 2003-04, 2004-05, 2005-06 and 2006-07; under Big Sam Allardyce, UEFA Cup campaigns, good cup runs and a League Cup final trip to the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
Lows include losing that final in Cardiff, losing 5–0 to Stoke City at Wembley in the FA Cup Semi Final in 2011, terrible starts to seasons, flirting with relegation, a revolving door of underachieving managers following Big Sam’s acrimonious departure, poor transfer market buys, and, finally, relegation to the Championship and remaining there.
Punching above our weight – the Big Sam years
Sam Allardyce managed Wanderers from 1999-2007.
Under his managerial leadership, Bolton improved and established themselves in the Premiership. The 2003–04 season saw the side finish eighth and reach the League Cup final, losing 2–1 to Middlesbrough.
2004–05 saw Allardyce and Bolton finish sixth and qualify for the UEFA Cup for the first time in the club’s history. In 2005–06, Allardyce once again took Bolton into the top half of the Premiership and also steered them into the knockout rounds of the UEFA Cup. The Trotters reached the last 32 but were eventually eliminated by French team Marseille, losing 2–1 on aggregate. Bolton eventually finished eighth in the EPL that season.
Allardyce was touted as a major candidate for the England manager’s job after it was confirmed that Sven-Göran Eriksson would leave the England manager’s job after the 2006 FIFA World Cup. Wanderers confirmed that they would let him talk to the FA if the FA approached him. However, he was never offered the job, which eventually went to Steve McClaren.
Speculation arose on 28 April 2007 that Allardyce would quit as Bolton manager at the end of the 2006–07 season, a move that the board initially denied. However, Bolton announced the next day that Allardyce was to leave the club after eight years, effective immediately. Sammy Lee, Allardyce’s assistant, was announced as his replacement the following day, ushering in the “Little Sam” era.
Allardyce told the Mail on Sunday on the 12th of May 2007 that part of his reason for leaving Bolton was because he wanted to win silverware. Allardyce said, “I have had praise for what I’ve done, but there’s nothing at the end of it. I want silverware. I’m determined to get it before my days are over.”
Allardyce told The Telegraph in August 2011, “Bolton, at the end, had an opportunity to finish in the Champions League but didn’t want to take it, so what’s the point in staying?” Allardyce said. “As much as I loved the club, it was impossible for me to stay.
“We had 39 points after 21 games. We were ahead of Arsenal, ahead of Liverpool. We needed to spend some money to give us an opportunity to finish in the Champions League and I was turned down flat and told that we don’t want to finish in the Champions League.”
Asked what he needed, Allardyce said:
“About two players”. I said to the chairman, “If we just put more into our squad now we will get in the Champions League. We’ll finish fourth or third.”
“’All we have to do is have a mediocre 17 games and we are going to finish in the Champions League. These players are too fatigued to carry on because we have got a smaller squad than Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea.’”
“Their reaction was, ‘well, we’re safe, we’re happy with that’.
“That was it. I went home and said to [my wife] Lynne, ‘that’s me finished’. She didn’t believe me, nobody believed but, believe you me, when Sam makes his mind up, there is no turning back. I tried to stay loyal. I had to keep it quiet at that particular time because of my love for the club.”
Bolton were already over-achieving by competing in the UEFA Cup, and Allardyce’s assertion that Champions League qualification was possible given additional resources smacks of over-confidence in his own abilities and a potential repeat of the Leeds United scenario. Bigger clubs than Bolton, such as Everton, have also tried and failed to establish themselves in the Champions League, and that is with bigger squads, more international level players and deeper war chests.
Leeds had taken out large loans against the prospect of the share of the TV rights and sponsorship revenues from UEFA Champions League qualification and subsequent progress in the competition. However, Leeds narrowly failed to qualify for the Champions League in two successive seasons, and as a consequence did not receive enough income to repay the loans. The subsequent financial implosion led to the club being asset stripped of its best players, and a resultant tumble down the divisions.
Kettle element magnate Eddie Davies had already bank-rolled the Wanderers since taking over Burnden Leisure in 2003, and Allardyce going cap in hand to Phil Gartside and Davies for more money to buy world-class players seems like being greedy and asking for the moon on a stick. Allardyce could have had a job for life at The Trotters, but his ego wouldn’t let him settle for never winning silverware, something he has yet to achieve with the clubs he has managed subsequently.
Little Sam and the Ginger Mourinho
“Little” Sammy Lee had been Allardyce’s assistant since September 2005, and knew the Bolton setup well. When Allardyce left Bolton in April 2007, Lee was confirmed as his successor shortly afterwards.
Sammy Lee tried to get Bolton to play attractive, flowing football, which was to be applauded, but the team lost the hard physical edge that they had under Allardyce. That physical edge, within the laws of the game, had so upset teams like Arsenal and Stoke and had brought the results that got Bolton into the top eight and then the top six.
Little Sam’s reign lasted just short of six months. Known for regularly citing the ‘positives’ in post-match interviews despite Bolton having lost, he was sacked in October 2007 after only winning one league game from eleven.
Gary Megson took over the manager’s job on 25 October 2007 in a two and a half year deal, despite knowing that he wasn’t the number one choice for the job. Bolton had already had approaches for Steve Bruce and Chris Coleman rejected, and Graeme Souness had also ruled himself out of the running.
When Megson took over Wanderers were bottom of the Premier League table with only 5 points from a possible 30. Megson’s rein started with the game against Aston Villa on the 28th of October, playing out a hard-earned 1–1 draw. He notched up his first win on the 24th of November when The Trotters beat the hated Manchester United, the champions and League leaders, 1–0; in their first home victory over United for 30 years.
By the New Year Bolton were lying 16th in the Premier League table, but only two points off the relegation zone. In January 2008, Nicolas Anelka was sold to Chelsea for £15 million, a very good return on the club’s investment, but didn’t bring in a comparable striker as a replacement.
The 2007–08 season saw Bolton survive with a 16th place finish, their safety being confirmed on the final day of the season, as they went on an unbeaten run for their final five games, as well as getting to the last sixteen of the UEFA Cup, giving the Bolton fans the chance to go on a protracted European tour. During the European run, Bolton gained an unexpected but notable draw at former European champions Bayern Munich.
The BBC Sport Website described the game as “an epic European result for struggling Bolton and boss Gary Megson in the Uefa Cup”.
“[Kevin] Davies grabbed an unlikely draw for the visitors when he slipped the ball under keeper Oliver Kahn in the 82nd minute.
“Bolton had earlier stunned the hosts with Ricardo Gardner’s deflected shot eight minutes in.
“But Lukas Podolski equalised for the Bundesliga leaders on the half-hour mark with a low drive before claiming his second just after the break.”
Gary Megson said:
“It was very encouraging – but then I’ve been hugely encouraged since day one, with the application.
“You’ve seen it tonight – they’ve stuck at it. We got away with it once or twice, but it was good.
“We keep drawing games. We had 12 players missing against a club of this stature, and it was terrific.”
Bolton become the first British team to beat Red Star Belgrade in Belgrade in that same European campaign. We also defeated Atlético Madrid (who at the time were lying fourth in La Liga) 1–0 on aggregate in February 2008, winning 1–0 at home and drawing 0–0 away, to reach the last 16 of the UEFA Cup for the first time in the club’s history, before being knocked out by Sporting Lisbon.
Megson sent out the reserves to play Sporting in Lisbon in the last 16 with the tie at 1–1 after the leg at The Reebok. Bolton lost the away leg 0–1. Megson stated that he picked a reserve side so that the first team would be rested for the following Sunday’s relegation battle against Wigan Athletic, which they then lost 0–1 to a ten man Wigan side.
League form remained poor, and a 4–0 defeat at Aston Villa on 5 April left us in 18th place, two points adrift of safety. However, we pulled it out of the bag again in the closing stages of the season, taking 11 points from the last five games (including a 1–1 draw at Chelsea on the final day of the season) to secure survival in the EPL again – the first time Megson had achieved this as a manager.
Heading into the 2008–09 season, Johan Elmander was brought in for a club record £8.2m, finally using some of the transfer funds generated by the sale of Anelka. Fabrice Muamba (who later suffered a cardiac arrest on the pitch against Spurs) was brought in from Birmingham City for £5m, Mustapha Riga from Levante, Danny Shittu for £2m and Ebi Smolarek. All of these players except Muamba under-performed, especially Elmander who failed to score the goals he was brought in to do.
Bolton started the season unremarkably and by October Bolton were looking set for another relegation dogfight. This caused the pressure on Megson to increase, but he was given more time by Chairman Phil Gartside and managed to improve results, leading Bolton to a high of eighth in the league. On 1 March 2009, it was announced that Megson had agreed a new rolling contract with Bolton, and he celebrated this with a 1–0 victory over Newcastle United. Bolton finished 13th in the 2008–09 season.
More players came in in the summer of 2009, some of whom are still here, but the season started inauspiciously, with defeats to Hull City and Sunderland before seeing excellent form in the next seven games. These games saw three wins, two draws and narrow defeats to Manchester United and Liverpool. However, after the 25th of October, Bolton’s form nosedived, losing five out of the next six games. The first three were losses by four goals and these were followed by a home defeat to Blackburn, a draw against Fulham and an away defeat at Wolverhampton Wanderers. In a period which lasted almost fifty days without a win Bolton played Manchester City and were pitted against fellow strugglers West Ham United, Wigan Athletic, Burnley and Hull City. In the four games that were played Bolton were leading them all but ended with only one win and three draws, leaving the club 18th out of 20 and with 18 points from 18 games.
On Wednesday 30 December 2009, Bolton announced that Megson had been relieved of his duties as manager with immediate effect. Bolton Wanderers official club statement said:
“The decision has been taken in the light of the position the club finds itself in the Barclays Premier League at the halfway point of the season.”
It was later confirmed that as the club and their former manager could not agree a compensation deal, and Megson would be paid out on the remainder of his rolling contract on a weekly basis, effectively putting him on a year’s gardening leave.
Over two years after being dismissed by Bolton, Megson complained that he had never won the fans over and hit out at the club’s supporters, claiming that they did not like him and he did not like them. This is despite the fans giving him the nickname of “Ginger Mourinho”. It’s true that there was antipathy on both sides, but had Megson got the results then the fans would have been fine. It’s pretty simple really. The fact that he turned on them and blamed the player’s poor performances on the boo boy’s negativity certainly didn’t help.
January 2010, and the Wanderers expressed their interest in Owen Coyle becoming their new manager to replace the recently sacked Gary Megson. Coyle expressed his desire to leave Bolton’s Lancashire rivals Burnley and take up the position, something that certainly didn’t endear him to the Turf Moor faithful.
When Bolton next played Burnley, Coyle was called “Judas” by the Burnley fans as they felt that he had betrayed them. He retaliated by saying that if they (the Burnley fans) were going to use biblical terms about him and his time in charge of the club he should be referred to as ‘Moses’ for leading them out of the wilderness. This led to Burnley displaying home-made banners saying that Coyle wasn’t the messiah but “a very naughty boy” (a la Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’).
Coyle made some decent signings upon joining the Wanderers, including Stuart Holden from MLS side Houston Dynamo, Manchester City winger Vladimir Weiss, and Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere on loan until the end of the season. Coyle achieved his goal of keeping Bolton in the Premier League by finishing 14th with 39 points, nine points clear of relegated Burnley. Result.
Coyle strengthened the squad again in the summer, bringing in Marcos Alonso from Real Madrid and Ivan Klasnić on a long-term contract. The January 2011 transfer window saw Coyle do one mediocre and one inspired bit of business, buying David Wheater from Middlesbrough and signing Daniel Sturridge on loan from Chelsea until the end of the season. Wheater lumbered around the pitch like an old cart horse whilst Daniel Sturridge kept us up, weighing in with 8 goals in 12 appearances.
In his first full season at the club, Coyle’s Wanderers finished 14th in the EPL and reached the semi-final stage of the FA Cup. Wanderers were expected to win the semi-final and even go on and win the cup for Nat Lofthouse, who had died in January. However, the weight of expectation on the players turned them into rabbits in headlights and they choked on the day, being soundly beaten 5-0 by Stoke City. The match was a massive anti-climax for the club and the fans, as the team had the best chance of winning the FA Cup since 1958 but let themselves, the club and the town down badly. What made it even worse was that it led to a disastrous run of defeats. The following season began as the previous one had ended with just one win and six defeats, their worst start since the 1902-03 season when Bolton were relegated.
The 17th of March 2012 saw a televised teatime game against Spurs at White Hart Lane in the FA Cup. Fabrice Muamba collapsed near the centre circle and had to be resuscitated several times, in front of an audience of millions. The presence of a heart specialist in the crowd probably saved his life. Owen Coyle travelled to the London Chest Hospital with Muamba, who stayed in a critical condition for several weeks. Coyle was widely praised for the manner in which he represented the club during the period.
On 13 May 2012, Bolton Wanderers were relegated to the Championship by one point on the last day of the season after drawing 2-2 with Stoke City, with Stoke scoring a controversial opener in which former Bolton player Jon Walters appeared to push goalkeeper Adam Bogdan into the net. Stoke were then given a questionable penalty, and the die was cast. Coyle had failed in his prime task, which was to keep Bolton up. However, he kept his job.
The Wanderer’s first Championship season started badly. Bolton kicked off the 2012-13 season against Coyle’s former club and local rivals Burnley, losing 2-0. That defeat was followed by a win against Derby County and a draw against Nottingham Forest, both at the Reebok. The following week, Bolton lost 3-1 to Hull City. In The Bolton News’ report of the match, chief sports editor Marc Iles wrote, “Sections of Wanderers fans called for Owen Coyle to leave his post as the club fell to a dire 3-1 defeat at the KC Stadium, The anti-Coyle chants continued after the final whistle, leaving the club potentially with a lot to think about heading into the international break.” The next match was against Watford, and, even though the Trotters won 2-1, the boo boys continued to call for Coyle to go long after the full-time whistle had blown.
This was followed by a 2-1 defeat to Birmingham City at St Andrew’s and Coyle’s card was marked. With only three wins in ten league matches and a second round exit from the League Cup to Crawley Town, everyone thought it best to concentrate on the league, as the old footballing cliché goes.
As a consequence of poor performances and The Trotters languishing in 16th place, Coyle was sacked on the 9th of October 2012. On the 23rd of October 2012, the then Crystal Palace manager Dougie Freedman took over.
The Freedman Era
Freedman’s first match in charge of Bolton was a 2–1 win over Cardiff City, and The Trotters were undefeated throughout the whole month of November, the first time they had achieved this for two years.
He went on to lead Wanderers to five wins in a row for the first time since 2006 in the late push for promotion, changing the club from candidates for relegation to League 1 in a lowly 20th place, to play-off contenders in 7th position in the Championship. We narrowly failed to qualify for the play-offs, only missing out on goal difference on the final day of the season. Freedman won the Football League Championship Manager of the Month award for April 2013 on the back of this effort.
The pundits and fans had high expectations for Bolton this season, but poor results have seen us languishing at the wrong end of the table throughout the autumn. A decent run in late October and throughout November saw my team put some distance between us and the relegation dogfighters, but that run came to an abrupt halt in late November/early December with back-to-back 1-0 defeats.
If Freedman is to keep his job, he’ll have to repeat the magic trick he performed in spring 2013, but getting Bolton into the play-offs still might not be enough if we fail to gain promotion. Freedman’s fate is in the players’ hands.
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