Bolton Wanderers have just played their inaugural season in European football. Placed in Group H, Wanderers had a tricky task, drawing experienced Spanish side Sevilla, the notoriously awkward Besiktas, Andrei Arshavin's Zenit St Petersburg and Vitoria Guimaraes.
Unbeaten in the group (drawing away at Besiktas and Guimaraes, beating Zenit on a sodden Reebok pitch 1-0 and drawing with Sevilla), plucky Wanderers went out in the round of 32, losing 2-1 at the Stade Velodrome to Marseille despite taking a 1-0 lead thanks to Stelios Giannakopoulos.
The overriding feeling was not of disappointment, but pride. The club was going places, so it seemed. We were confident we'd be back. Unfortunately, an 8th place finish in the 2005/06 season meant that Wanderers missed out, but plans for a return were being put in place.
The sign of intent to return to European competition was clear on 25th August 2006, when Wanderers signed Nicolas Anelka on a four year deal from Fenerbache for a reported £8m (it was also later reported that Eddie Davies personally bankrolled the deal, and insisted on this money being repaid upon Anelka's departure, although evidence of this is lacking).
As with all top Wanderers signings, onlookers shrugged the transfer off as nothing to be too interested in, as Anelka was "washed up". After 11 games without a goal, and clearly lacking the match fitness required to compete in the Premier League, it looked like Sam Allardyce's expensive gamble had failed.
However, it all changed on 25th November 2006, when Anelka scored a stunning brace at home to his former club, Arsenal. His first was simply out of this world. Cutting in from the left wing, Anelka hammered a shot past Jens Lehmann, the ball ricocheting off crossbar and post and into the back of the net. As first goals go, this was sublime, and one of the best the Reebok has seen.
His second, however, was more like the Anelka we would get to know. A beautiful pass from Ivan Campo in behind the Arsenal defence saw Anelka one-on-one with Lehmann, who calmly slotted the ball underneath the German keeper to make it 3-1 and secure the win with just under 15 minutes left on the clock.
Anelka would go on to score 21 goals in 53 games for the Whites, and his ratio of a goal every 2.5 games cements his place as the best (possibly only) player that can be described as Bolton's "natural" goalscorer (a case can be made for Ivan Klasnic, but injuries and lack of fitness ensured that this wasn't seen on a regular basis).
Despite how clearly brilliant he was, Anelka never felt like our player. His moody demeanour did nothing to improve his reputation as "Le Sulk". It always felt like we had Nico on loan, even after he signed another four year deal only 12 months after joining the club (he'd also leave just 4 months after he'd signed this improved deal).
Sam Allardyce's departure seemed to make Nico increasingly keen to leave Bolton, especially when rumours of a move to former club Arsenal surfaced. However, it was Chelsea who signed Anelka for £15m, only 18 months after joining the club, in January 2008. In that time, he'd gone from a player on the scrap heap to a top class striker once more, a familiar Allardyce story.
Wanderers were the Year 8 who'd tried to sit on the backseat of the bus. After one year in the big school of the Europa League, we'd overestimated our ability to stay there. We'd signed a big name, though his stock was low at the time. It wouldn't be long before we'd be back where we welcome, the front seat directly behind the driver (hovering above Fulham at the foot of the Premier League).
Just like the quiet girl in the Year above that nervously smiled on the stride to the back seat, Anelka abandoned ship when the going got tough, and found a club more suited to his level. Wanderers would never have a forward of his ability again.
Next time - Overspending and Underperforming