Great Football League Teams 27: Bolton Wanderers, 1996-7
In recent years, parachute payments have helped ease the agony of relegation even if their bounteousness can lull a club into thinking the cash flow is never ending. The pattern of a first dry run in the Premier League followed by immediate relegation and then promotion has at times resembled a deliberate strategy – the likes of Charlton and West Bromwich Albion have prospered in a way that clubs that perhaps shone too brightly in their first campaign (Ipswich, Hull, Reading) have failed to match.
But even before football’s financiers took their inspiration from skydiving, the trend was identifiable. Having burst up by way of that epic play off final against Reading in 1995, Bolton Wanderers adopted a conservative approach to their first top echelon campaign in aeons, suffering the consequences but readying themselves expertly for their first season back in purgatory.
For the Trotters’ preparation for the 1996-7 season was exemplary. First, the major sellable assets had been cashed – the longer serving Jason McAteer and Alan Stubbs having departed for good money to Anfield and Parkhead and star of the Premiership year, Saša Ćurčić leaving for Aston Villa in a cool £4 million deal – a barmy one for the Villans in hindsight.
Second, it became clear that the players brought in for that misfiring campaign, while proving insufficiently capable of mounting a Premiership survival bid, were more than useful in assisting an attempt to step back up immediately. Hence, centre back pairing Gerry Taggart and Chris Fairclough were cemented as first choices while Nathan Blake, Scott Sellars and Guðni Bergsson were now readier.
Third, the most coveted employee, Alan Thompson, was persuaded of the likelihood of bouncebackability. He and other stalwarts like Keith Branagan, Jimmy Phillips, and John McGinlay had promotions on their CVS once – so why not again?
The only significant newcomer as Wanderers started their season with a 1-1 draw at Vale Park was Per Frandsen and it was the cultured Dane who achieved a killing with the only goal as Manchester City were beaten 1-0 in the first home game – at this point, Burnden Park was in its final year – a supermarket cruelly blotting out the view of one corner flag from the away end.
Wins against Norwich and QPR followed and despite the severe anomaly of a 5-2 battering by a Jeroen Boere inspired Southend United (the Shrimpers were to end up 24 places lower than Bolton come May), a 6-1 hiding of Grimsby and a functional 2-0 defeat of Pompey were to put the Lancashire club top – a position they were never to lose from then until season end.
It was to be a majestic ten months for McGinlay – 24 goals, swashbuckling and effervescent. Blake chipped in with 19 and the midfield also got in on the act as the team as a whole managed 100 goals and 98 points – a full 18 clear of second placed Barnsley. Two entertaining 2-2’s with the Tykes were highlights of an autumn where form dipped a little – and at one point, the XI suffered an eight game winless run, but the first of two seven game winning streaks started on Boxing Day at Grimsby – a 3-0 win over a strong Wolves side a particular highlight of this spell.
Colin Todd set his side up to attack and it’s arguable that this was a new era for English football’s second tier – classy foreigners like Frandsen supplementing traditional homegrown thrust. The fourth phase of his master strategy was to bring in judicious acquisitions throughout the season – John Sheridan’s initial loan from Sheffield Wednesday was made permanent in December and Jamie Pollock was rescued from an ill-advised siesta in Pamplona. Both excelled in the run in.
Swindon Town were hammered 7-0 one glorious March day with 4 goals coming in a zany last 8 minutes and the title was clinched at the home of those supercilious local rivals Man Citeh – an early Georgi Kinkladze goal stubbed out by Sellars and Mixu Paatelainen. Bolton were back and just to emphasize how good a side they were, Chelsea and then Tottenham were ousted from the Coca Cola Cup – the latter by six goals to one – a side containing messrs Anderson, Sheringham and Campbell humiliated by McGinlay’s magnificent treble.
But as Wanderers prepared for spending most of the next 15 years playing top flight football (despite another reegation in 1997-8), perhaps the most significant night came on February 4, 1997 – a shock 3-2 home defeat against Chesterfield in the FA Cup saw a young striker bag a hat-trick for the visitors – his name? Kevin Davies.