So, here we are, back in the third division of English football. We find ourselves as a founder member of the football league, fallen on hard times, looking for a way back to the big time. Is this season one that the club finally rallies itself, turns a corner and forges ahead with a bounce back promotion? Or will it simply be a pitstop to mid table irrelevance or even worse, another relegation, where both on field ineptitude and off field financial chaos ensure inevitable failure? Only time will tell of course, the unpredictability of football is one of its attractions, frustrating as it may be.
However, a lower division big game, against another fallen giant, got my memory cogs whirring.
Immediately, an image appeared of Robbie Savage (no not that clown who now presents on TV), with arms aloft in salute to us fans in the Burnden Stand, after a hard fought 2-0 home win against a certain Sheffield United.
The year was 1988. Phil Neal had finally arrested seven years of abject failure with promotion from our one and only season in Division Four. The big question was; could a totally plotless Bolton hold there own and establish themselves in Division Three, prior to making a promotion push back to Division Two and footballing relevance?
The litmus test in 1988 was Sheffield United, a team that was considered a promotion certainty at the start of the season. This was a team that was ready to step up, with only a resurgent Wolves (Div 4 champions the previous season) and a well managed Port Vale, between them and the champions crown. The date was 01 October. The game was a real test of where Bolton were at. It mattered. It mattered a lot. A Burnden Park crowd of 9,345, only bettered later in the season when we played Preston, was there to witness the event. Sheffield United didn't hand Bolton the game on a plate. We had to fight for every ball and tackle. Two goals from Steve Thompson, one a penalty, was the difference. But the result wasn't the main point of note. It was the fact that the game showed that Bolton could compete in this division, even despite the total lack of finance. We had a team that wanted to go out on the pitch and succeed, to win. Whilst Sheffield United went on to that certain promotion, battering us 4-0 at Bramall Lane on the way, it mattered not. Bolton went on to finish a creditable tenth and complete a 16 game end of season unbeaten run, finishing off, of course, with that 4-1 Sherpa Van Trophy Wembley final victory against Torquay.
Just thinking of the players in the squad that season brings a smile to my face. Highly paid stars they were not, but a team that played for each other, they must certainly were.
To name a few:
At the back was Dave Felgate. Don't let photos of the Paul Metcalf 80's perm and tash fool you. A great goalie, who was right up there as one of the most influential Bolton goalkeepers in my lifetime, alongside other greats such as McDonough, Branagan and Jaaskelainen.
In defence we had the skilled but slow Phil Brown at RB. The reliable veteran Dean Crombie, alongside a highly rated young CB called Mark Winstanley, who fans reckoned was heading for the very top. At LB was Barry Cowdrill, the chicken legged fans favourite, who'd run through a brick wall for the club.
Just in front was Robbie Savage, a fraction of the price of Spearing but twice the worth. Our midfield engine was Steve Thompson, our best player, who scored absolute screamers and was destined to make a name for himself further up the leagues. Alongside in midfield was local lad Julian Darby. We had the classy winger Jeff Chandler and the rocket winger who couldn't pass, Stuart Storer.
Up front we had John Thomas and incredibly, our top scorer that season, Trevor 'Sumo' Morgan. A less likely striker I never did see, but still more effective than Madine, Heskey and Dobbie combined. Finally, special mention must go to Nicky Brookman, who's pre match preparation was to share a pint with the fans before a game.
Moving forward almost 28 years brings us to Saturday's game. As before Sheffield United are favourites to go up, but, on paper, it should be Bolton. For instance:
Wilson, Wheater, Beevers, Moxey
Taylor, Pratley, Spearing, Clayton
Clough or Davies
Madine or Proctor
We should be Champions with this team. But this was mostly the team that got us relegated in the most humiliating manner. Can Parky make a difference? We will see on Saturday.