After a decade in the top flight Bolton seem destined for relegation, but Owen Coyle's team are capable of conjuring up an unlikely belief and beating anyone on their day, argues Jon Callow
In August 2001, the Liverpool goalkeeper Sander Westerveld brought his career at the club to an early close with a late blunder that sent newly promoted Bolton Wanderers to the top of the table just three games into their current Premier League stint. Establishing themselves in the top division after years of ups and downs, Bolton became a tricky fixture for their distinguished guests. Liverpool collected just five points from their next five visits
to the Reebok.
However, since Gary Speed and Ivan Campo sent Liverpool back down the M62 empty handed in 2006, Bolton supporters have not had so much as a point to shout about in nine meetings. It is not just the balance of power that has changed. Following an acrimonious split with Sam Allardyce in 2007, Bolton made the mistake of giving Sammy Lee a first break in football management, before casting Gary Megson in the role of unlikely saviour.
Like Liverpool, Bolton have since turned to a crowd-pleasing Glaswegian. But while Kenny Dalglish’s Anfield deification might be enough to buy him the time he needs, there are a number of theories to explain Bolton fans’ continuing patience with Owen Coyle. Many cite Coyle’s own standing as a popular ex-player, though a career spanning 78 games over two years is hardly the stuff of which legends are made, even if a handful of his 23 goals live long in the memory.Some suggest Wanderers fans have learned from their part in a prolonged and largely unproductive spat with Megson, while others find the amiable Coyle hard to dislike despite a perceived shortfall in tactical acumen.
Perhaps it is simply a quiet acceptance of the inevitable. Wanderers have been punching above their weight for the last ten seasons and there is a growing feeling that something will have to give sooner rather than later. The warnings were clear towards the end of last year. While pundits were falling over one another to praise Coyle’s overstated revolution, relegation was looking like a distinct possibility until Daniel Sturridge arrived on loan.
Off the field, the media have used Bolton’s spiralling financial woes to illustrate the folly of top-flight football, conveniently ignoring that the vast majority of the club’s reported £110 million debt is made up of personal loans from the reclusive owner Eddie Davies. That is not to pretend the situation is ideal, of course, and there have been clear indications of late that Eddie’s pockets are not bottomless. A summer of cloth-cutting cleared out some of the club’s bigger earners. Johan Elmander, Matty Taylor and Jlloyd Samuel departed, while Gary Cahill followed in the January transfer window. With reinforcements taking the form of free transfers and experienced Championship acquisitions, and a dozen or so of the current squad out of contract at the end of the season, many fear the board has simply given up swimming against the tide.
Still, with Dalglish forking out something in the region of £108m just to tread water, who is to say Bolton’s money men have got it wrong? Jordan Henderson may well fulfil his potential given time but £20m for Stewart Downing had a whiff of crazy money about it. Andy Carroll would barely be justifying his transfer fee if there had been a decimal point between the three and the five.
The Bolton boardroom is not the only place where attitudes have changed. The first time I saw Wanderers play Liverpool was an FA Cup third round tie in 1993. Bolton were a third-tier side on the up and the visit of Liverpool to Burnden Park was the most exciting football event in the town for well over a decade. Bolton drew 2-2 and won the replay at Anfield 2-0, kick-starting the club’s most successful period since the 1950s.
The journey to the top was undeniably thrilling but a decade ten years in a league that is impossible to win has dulled the enthusiasm of many. The novelty of the UEFA Cup and last season’s run to the FA Cup semi-final briefly recaptured the imagination but the pre-match atmosphere these days is often jaded.
Pessimism around the ground isn’t helped by today’s late kick-off, which means fans have already seen a number of results go against them at the foot of the table. Still, there is nothing like an early goal to lift the spirits. Three minutes into the game, the Reebok comes alive. Steven Gerrard fails to track Mark Davies’s run onto David Ngog’s deft lay-off and, with the Liverpool defence showing minimal interest, the diminutive midfielder scampers into the area to steer a low shot past Pepe Reina and into the bottom right corner.
Coyle is off the bench immediately, clapping his hands and barking instructions, perhaps reminding his players there are still 87 minutes left – even if they have not lost a game in which they have scored first all season. On the terraces, any optimism engendered by that statistic is tempered by a record that boasts just five wins and a draw. Two minutes after the opener, Jose Enrique suffers the ignominy of being outmuscled by Chris Eagles, who shows admirable persistence along the touchline before rolling the ball agonisingly across goal with Davies, Ngog and Fabrice Muamba all in close attendance.
In many ways, Eagles encapsulates Bolton this season: often inadequate and frustratingly short on self-belief, but capable of flashes of genuine ability. Whatever his shortcomings, he is involved in everything that is good about Bolton in the first half. With the half-hour mark approaching, Eagles cuts in from the right to collect another neat touch from Ngog and, with Maxi Rodríguez taking his turn to stand and watch in the Liverpool midfield, Nigel Reo-Coker runs into the box to control Eagles’s unwieldy delivery on his chest before stabbing in off Reina from barely six yards.
The reaction in the stands is a combination of disbelief and unbridled joy. A propensity to mark goals by belting out Depeche Mode through the public address is often met with derision but today it is all dancing and broad grins. Despite the party mood, though, it has already been too long a season to be working out league positions with an hour still to play.
Bolton have started well but Liverpool look lacklustre, almost uninterested. Dalglish’s naturally grumpy touchline demeanour worsens with every errant pass or missed tackle. For all his extravagant spending, his summer freebie Craig Bellamy is doing most to drag his side back into the game. With the score at 1-0, Bellamy is unfortunate to be penalised for a foul when he catches Zat Knight thinking he is a footballer.
With ten minutes of the first half remaining, Bellamy threatens to expose a lack of pace at the heart of the Bolton defence as Carroll lifts a ball over the top. Bolton fail to heed the warning and, moments later, Liverpool are back in it. Charlie Adam is allowed a free header in midfield, Carroll flicks on, and Bellamy leaves Knight and Sam Ricketts trailing in his wake before lifting a neat finish over the oncoming Adam Bogdan.
Dalglish’s joyless reaction says much about Liverpool’s first-half performance. He seethes into his big coat as if the goal is the very least his team could have contributed before the break.
Coyle’s response is the same as when his team went in front, all clenched fists and encouragement as he prowls the technical area in those
ever-present shorts. Rather than building on his goal, Bellamy opts to spend what’s left of the first half reigniting an old feud with Reo-Coker, who hardly turns the other cheek himself. It makes for an unseemly spectacle as the teams leave the field for the interval.
The half-time break is a nervous one for Bolton fans who have seen their team perform well only to let a below-par Liverpool off the hook late in the first period. A couple of months ago there would have been little question about which way the game would swing in the second half. For most of the season, Coyle has persevered with a rigid 4-4-2 despite having neither the players to make it work nor the results to justify his faith. Recently, though, a belated switch to a five-man midfield has coincided with an upturn in performance, breeding hope where there had previously been only resignation.
Five minutes into the second period, that hope turns to elation. David Wheater towers above the Liverpool defence to head Martin Petrov’s corner back across goal, and Gretar Steinsson swivels unmarked on the penalty spot to restore Bolton’s two-goal cushion with an emphatic finish. It has been a difficult 12 months for the Icelander but his attitude has rarely been questioned and his celebration hints at genuine catharsis.
Buoyed by their success, Bolton harry and chase in midfield, disrupting any semblance of Liverpool rhythm and limiting their opponents to speculative shots from distance. Daniel Agger goes closest to getting the visitors back into the game when he clips the top of the bar from 30 yards.
Though perhaps not quite giving them cause to rue letting him go, David Ngog has given his former employers plenty to think about, working tirelessly and holding the ball up well. He gets a standing ovation from the home support when his evening’s work is curtailed a couple of minutes from time. There is even a throaty cheer for substitute Kevin Davies, who has recently discovered that seasons of unswerving commitment can count for little once your performances start to betray your years, particularly in a struggling side.
The final whistle is greeted with a giddiness bordering on euphoria, and well it might be – the win lifts Bolton out of the bottom three for the first time since mid-October. As usual, Coyle strides across to thank the fans for their support. They respond with warm applause and a hearty rendition of a song from his playing days at the club. There is mutual respect, and even those who voice misgivings about his managerial abilities would desperately like him to succeed. One or two more days like today would go a long way.
Bolton fans will be cautious in their optimism. Their only previous home success – a comprehensive 5-0 demolition of Stoke City – was followed by five straight defeats. But this Bolton side looks altogether more resilient now. The extra body in midfield makes them more difficult to break down and allows Mark Davies, Eagles and the revitalised Petrov to follow their attacking instincts without fear of reprisal. If Coyle can keep the momentum going and perhaps add some quality in the transfer window, he might yet breathe new life into Bolton’s season.
From WSC 301 March 2012