Morrissey once sang that he had forgiven Jesus. Well I can do one better. I have forgiven Steve McManaman. Stevie Mac broke our hearts at Wembley. However he has atoned for his sins - we may have him to thank for the presence of footballing royalty from July 2004 to May 2005.
Chapter 4 of this series is the pinnacle - it does not get any better than here. Enjoy it, savour it. Only darker days are ahead.
Fernando Hierro. 439 appearances for Real Madrid, many as captain. 89 caps for Spain, again with a fair few as captain. 6 La Liga titles, 3 Champions League winner's medals. A footballing CV that belongs in a hall of fame. Yet in 2004, Fernando Hierro decided to add Bolton Wanderers Football Club to his CV at the age of 36. For our younger fans, it's very much like Gerard Pique, Andres Iniesta or Xavi signing for Bournemouth this summer. Sound ridiculous? It did in 2004, until the move was confirmed.
Immediately upon the announcement of the signing of Hierro, rival fans labelled Hierro "finished". It seemed so - a season in Qatar with Al Rayyan (in the days before the Chinese Super League) suggested that he was indeed over the hill. He apparently consulted former teammate Steve McManaman before making the move, so for that (and only that) we thank you, Stevie.
At 36, playing at his favoured centre half role seemed unrealistic in a league as fast paced as the Premier League, and so he was deployed in a defensive midfield role on most occasions. Like many foreign signings, it took Hierro some time to acclimatise to English football, but once he'd settled he showed what a world class talent he'd been blessed with.
Of our marquee signings of that era, we probably got more out of Djorkaeff, Okocha and Campo, but as a household name, this was the pinnacle. Hierro made less than 30 appearances for the Wanderers, and that he is firmly in the majority of all time BWFC XI speaks volumes.
A friend of mine (Liverpudlian) named Hierro the only passer in the Premier League greater than Xabi Alonso (he always talks about seeing a 50 yard cross field pass to Stelios' feet that he has never forgotten). Praise indeed. In possession, Hierro was a machine - he would ping 40/50+ yard passes, and find feet without fail.
In his last game at the Reebok, he was substituted for Vincent Candela with 23 minutes left on the clock. Not only did 27,000 fans rise to their feet to say goodbye to a footballing legend who chose to bring the curtain down on his career at Bolton, but players from both sides abandoned their position to embrace Hierro on his final exit from a football field. Wanderers won 3-2 and confirmed their place in next season's Europa League, but in the context of this narrative it matters little.
At the time, I don't feel I took it all in. I certainly didn't appreciate how well we had it. Looking back, I can barely believe it. And I wouldn't hold it against you if you didn't believe me either. Too good to be true.
Next up: The Backseat of the Bus