With the nation picking over the bones of England’s hat-trick of sporting failures in football, rugby and Formula One, it was a good week for Bolton to bury the bad news. Sammy Lee had managed just three wins from 14 games since taking over from Sam Allardyce in April, leaving Wanderers second from bottom. Yet the timing of his departure on October 17 – ten days after his last game (a 1-0 defeat to Chelsea) and only three days before a daunting trip to Arsenal – suggests it was not just about results.
After 15 years of coaching with Liverpool, England and Bolton, management didn’t seem to suit Lee, who paced the touchline non-stop during games, screaming instructions at players who either couldn’t hear or chose to ignore him. Where Big Sam exuded enough power and influence to spend most games in the stand, Little Sam looked like a man struggling to make his point – despite inheriting Allardyce’s headset.
Big Sam’s shadow loomed large in other ways, too. He claimed he had left the club with an excellent platform to build on, yet soon set about dismantling it by poaching several key backroom figures as well as Abdoulaye Faye. A 3‑0 home defeat to Newcastle on the opening day didn’t help, either, but ultimately Lee was the architect of his own downfall.
The appointment of former Liverpool chief scout Frank McParland as general manager in July was an admission that he couldn’t handle the full responsibility on his own. Team selection and tactics were soon found wanting, too. A pass-and-move ethos replaced the long-ball game that had tarnished some of Allardyce’s achievements and with a change in style came changes in personnel. But most of Lee’s 11 summer signings proved no better than those already at the club.
Where Allardyce had gambled on ageing superstars, Lee invested in unwanted players from teams who finished lower than Bolton in recent years: Jlloyd Samuel and Gavin McCann from Villa, Andy O’Brien from Portsmouth, Heidar Helguson from Fulham. Midfielders Mikel Alonso, Danny Guthrie and Christian Wilhelmsson were brought in to make Bolton better to watch; instead they simply became easier to beat.
Stelios Giannakopoulos and Ivan Campo both turned down moves to Sheffield United and Campo was omitted from the UEFA Cup squad, a decision that came back to embarrass Lee when the Spaniard was recalled for the Tottenham game and scored the equaliser. Further evidence that Lee had misjudged the longevity of the older players came at Fulham in the Carling Cup, when Stelios came off the bench to score the winner after Daniel Braaten, another summer signing, had missed three good chances.
Reports that senior players were unhappy with Lee’s methods soon began to leak. Matters came to a head when Gary Speed left the coaching role Lee had given him. The manager said Speed had been “relieved of his duties”, but the Welshman soon claimed he had resigned after being dropped for the Chelsea game. Captain Kevin Nolan had also been left out. His return to the side at Arsenal, where he played 90 minutes despite looking out of shape and confidence, led some to conclude that caretaker boss Archie Knox may not have been the only person picking the team.
All this makes Phil Gartside look rather foolish. The Bolton chairman allowed his mouth to get the better of him during the petty squabbling that followed Allardyce’s departure, claiming that Lee was “the better man” and would “make us a much more professional outfit”.
Gary Megson’s appointment as Lee’s successor did little for Gartside’s popularity. Megson, who was working as an unpaid coach at Stoke before taking the Leicester job only six weeks earlier, received just 12 of the 699 votes cast by fans in an online poll. His first game in charge, a 1-1 draw against Villa, saw the lowest-ever Premier League attendance at the Reebok Stadium.
Gartside probably sees a bit of Allardyce in Megson’s no-nonsense personality. But while Big Sam was unproven and untested eight years ago, Megson is neither, having tried and failed at Norwich, Blackpool, Stockport, Stoke and Nottingham Forest. Promotions at West Brom were tainted by relegation, and his Premier League record (played 48, won seven) is as unimpressive as is his reputation for alienating people: most Leicester fans already seemed happy to see the back of him.
The prospect of a UEFA Cup tie against Bayern Munich provided temporary relief for Bolton, but Megson’s main priority now must be Premier League survival. Preventing the departure of Nicolas Anelka, scorer of six of Bolton’s first ten league goals this season, could well be the key. Otherwise, it may take a lot longer than six months for Gartside to repair the damage.
From WSC 250 December 2007