Monday 17 March ~
The Premier League relegation battle is far from over. Starting with tonight's game between Birmingham and Newcastle at St Andrew's there are no fewer than 16 games between the bottom nine teams between now and May 11. This week's favourites for relegation, despite Fulham's win over Everton, are the teams currently in the bottom three: Derby, Fulham and Bolton. If Bolton are to be relegated (their next four games are Man Utd, Man City, Arsenal and Villa) they will join Ipswich and Blackburn in the dubious honour of going down in the same season as a European campaign. But it is the nature of this UEFA Cup exit on Thursday and subsequent defeat to Wigan, despite nine changes to the team, that is angering Bolton supporters.
It was a closely matched contest against Sporting Lisbon on Thursday and Bolton lost by one goal an aggregate, scored in the 85th minute. But it was Gary Megson's tactics, resting several key players so they would be fresh for the Wigan game yesterday, that caused controversy. The backlash was especially strong in the light of the poor performance, losing 1-0 to their relegation and local rivals despite having a man advantage for most of the game after Jason Koumas's dismissal in the fifth minute.
Ex-pro columnists enjoyed this story greatly. Stan Collymore apparently spat out his teeth while in his “Fiver” column that specialises in pointing out the obvious, Tony Cascarino just “didn't get it” and apparently thinks that selling Nicolas Anelka was a mistake. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, however. Had Bolton scraped a win in Lisbon and performed better against Wigan, Cascarino would probably have been hailing the manager's bravery. Indeed, Steve Bruce publicly supported his opposite number before yesterday's game.
Things didn't turn out like this however and Bolton are now in trouble. But this clear ordering of priorities is puzzling and perverse. Bolton have no chance of winning the league and even in a cup year such as this, an FA Cup win would be a surprise. So this lack of regard for a genuine chance of European success is odd. Many Bolton fans claim they would be happy to win the UEFA Cup at the expense of Premier League survival and see Megson's tactics as a “slap in the face”. They are angry and you can understand why. Ed Upright