August 2006. After losing out on the England job to Steve McClaren, Sam Allardyce had been busy getting together a Bolton Wanderers side capable of challenging for Europe again. The 2005/2006 season had seen Bolton finish 8th, missing out on another European campaign by a single place. As well as that, Jay-Jay Okocha left on a free transfer to earn one last pay cheque in Qatar.
Bolton had already started the 2006/2007 season with a 2-0 win against Tottenham Hotspur, with goals from Kevin Davies and Ivan Campo, who of course scored a thunderbolt from well over forty yards. However, despite boasting a team full of talent, with players like Ivan Campo, Stelios, Kevin Nolan, El-Hadji Diouf and Gary Speed, Big Sam was looking for the final piece. That one star player to separate Bolton from the rest of the challenging pack.
All Summer, Big Sam had been looking for that elusive goalscorer. Wanderers had been linked with a plethora of talent. Names such as Alessandro Del Piero, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Javier Saviola and Lomana LuaLua had been rumoured for a move to The Reebok.
Bolton had even seen an £8.5 million move for Crystal Palace striker Andrew Johnson fail, as the then 25 year old opted for a move to Everton instead.
After months of searching, Bolton finally found their new striker.
Step forward, Nicolas Anelka.
On the 25th August 2006, Nicolas Anelka signed for Bolton Wanderers from Turkish side Fenerbache for a fee of £8 million, nearly doubling the amount the club paid for El-Hadji Diouf the year previous. Anelka, then 27, had started his career with Paris Saint Germain, and had subsequent spells with Arsenal, Real Madrid, another year in Paris, Liverpool and Manchester City.
Despite scoring goals wherever he played and winning numerous trophies, Anelka arrived with a certain amount of baggage. A nomadic career had earned Anelka a reputation as a confrontational and unenthusiastic person. Because of his, Anelka had been gifted the moniker of 'Le Sulk'.
However, if there was any manager that wouldn't be afraid of the reputation chained to Anelka, it was Big Sam. BSA had spent years meticulously picking the best backroom staff, from analytics to nutrition, players were individually catered for. His man management was second to none.
Just look at Kevin Davies and Diouf as prime examples of how Sam could get the best out of players who weren't reaching their potential. Even though the same couldn't be said for Mario Jardel, Big Sam wasn't afraid to take risks.
Upon Anelka's arrival, Allardyce stated:
‘I think it is the smallest gamble we have ever taken. Nic's record speaks for itself’.
It was certainly a statement of intent from Sam Allardyce and Phil Gartside to pay £8 million for one player. Back then, especially for Bolton, it was unprecedented.
SIDENOTE: I remember being in France on holiday when it was revealed Anelka was a Wanderer. I also remember being on a bendy bus in a city called Quimper in the full Bolton 06/07 away kit and bumping into a family from another part of Bolton. Weird. I'd been a mascot a couple of weeks prior, for the AZ Alkmaar friendly. My Dad got chatting to Big Sam, and I have a muddled memory of Allardyce denying any interest/being coy when asked about Anelka.
The move had come about due to the scouting of Dave Worthington, the brother of legendary Wanderers striker Frank. Dave had also scouted Franck Ribery, Hugo Lloris and Samir Nasri whilst working for Bolton. It's a shame Wanderers didn't have the resources Premier League clubs do now.
Anelka made his Wanderers debut on the 9th September 2006 against Watford FC, but it wouldn't be until his eleventh league game when the Frenchman scored his first Premier League goal in a Whites shirt. Against his former team Arsenal, Anelka scored a brace, including a 25 yard screamer, as Bolton thumped the Gunners 3-1.
Anelka ended the season with twelve goals in all competitions, as Bolton qualified for the UEFA Cup for the second time in three years. Big Sam's 'small' gamble had paid off.
Despite the departure of Big Sam, due to having loftier ambitions than the club could handle (Big Sam had publicly stated interest in moves for Roy Keane and David Beckham), Anelka stayed loyal to Bolton.
At the end of August 2007, Anelka signed a new four year deal, stating at the time:
"I seem to have been linked with every club in the country of late, but my heart is with Bolton.
"I am very happy with my form, the club and the manager so signing a new contract was not a difficult decision."
Without Big Sam, Bolton endured a tough start to the season, although Anelka's form didn't suffer. Anelka scored eleven times in twenty-two games for Bolton in the 2007/2008 season, including the only goal in a 1-0 win against Manchester United, the first time Bolton had beaten Man Utd at home in nearly thirty years.
Due to Anelka's scintillating form, bigger clubs came calling in the January transfer window. It would be Chelsea, managed then by Avram Grant, who bought Anelka for a fee of £15 million.
Nicolas Anelka scored 23 goals in just 61 games for Bolton. Despite only spending eighteen months as a Wanderer, Bolton fans never saw a player who lived up to the 'Le Sulk' tagline.
We saw a committed player, who goes down in history as one of the best players to wear a Whites shirt.
It might have only been eighteen months, but what an eighteen months it was.