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The European Dream: A risk too big for Bolton Wanderers

A decade on, Eddie learns that hindsight is a wonderful thing

Sporting Lisbon v Bolton Wanderers - UEFA Cup Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

7th May 2005, the day that Bolton Wanderers made history.

El-Hadji Diouf’s first half goal secured a 1-1 draw for Wanderers at Fratton Park against Portsmouth. That point meant that for the first time in the clubs history, Bolton Wanderers had qualified for the UEFA Cup.

Wanderers would end the 2004/2005 season in 6th place, their highest Premier League finish. Just two years after Wanderers were almost relegated to Division One, European football was coming to The Reebok Stadium.

The UEFA Cup campaign in the 2005/2006 season produced some wonderful moments for Wanderers. Remaining unbeaten in the group stages against tough opposition in Beşiktaş, Zenit Saint Petersburg, Vitória de Guimarães and Sevilla, Wanderers were eventually knocked out in the last 32 by Marseille 2-1 on aggregate.

Lokomotiv Plovdiv v Bolton Wanderers Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

Having had a taste of European football in the UEFA Cup, Sam Allardyce wanted to take Wanderers into the Champions League.

The mere thought of Bolton Wanderers qualifying for Europe’s elite footballing competition now seems ludicrous. Although in the Big Sam era, it was a dream that almost became reality.

Cut to December 2006. Having won five on the bounce, Bolton Wanderers had secured their Premier League status for another season. Better still, the five successive wins pushed Wanderers into 3rd place in the table.

Big Sam was seventeen games away from creating history.

Knowing that Wanderers needed that extra bit of quality to guarantee a top four finish, Allardyce targeted three players he wanted to purchase in the upcoming January transfer window. Bolton had a relatively small squad compared to the big clubs, so the extra players would have given the club a better chance of reaching the Champions League.

Needing £6/7 million to get the players he had spent the last couple of months scouting, Big Sam calculated that Wanderers could take the money from the upcoming season’s budget. It was risk free in Allardyce’s eyes. If Bolton wanted to spend the money, they could.

With his wish list of players in hand, Allardyce took his proposal to then chairman Phil Gartside.

To Allardyce’s dismay, Phil Gartside was more interested in looking for free agents or cheap loan deals. Perhaps the financial ruin of Leeds United was running through his head.

Feeling that he had taken the club as far as he could without added investment, Sam Allardyce handed in his resignation, agreeing to leave at the end of the season.

Things didn’t go to plan, so Allardyce resigned after news of his imminent departure leaked with three games to go. Big Sam’s last game as Wanderers manager was a 2-2 draw against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

If Big Sam had been backed, would he have led Wanderers to Champions League qualification? Who knows. He could have, or we could have ended up in more financial ruin down the road.

With Sammy Lee in charge Wanderers finished 7th, qualifying for the UEFA Cup for the second time in three years.

Fast forward to January 2008. With Gary Megson now in charge, Bolton Wanderers were in the midst of a relegation battle. The team who had previously finished no lower than 8th in four successive seasons were now fighting to stay in the Premier League.

Megson’s sole aim as Wanderers boss was to keep the club in the Premier League and to do that, he had to invest in the January transfer window. Huge fees (well, huge for Bolton) were spent on Gretar Steinsson, Matt Taylor and Gary Cahill, money that was unavailable for Big Sam the previous year.

As well fighting to stay up, Megson had guided Wanderers into the knockout stages of the UEFA Cup. The group stage arguably produced the most memorable European games in Wanderers’ history.

Bolton became the first ever British side to beat Red Star Belgrade at their own ground, which is a fantastic record to break.

Then there was the famous 2-2 against Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena. How Wanderers drew against the biggest side in Germany with Gerald Cid at centre back and Gavin McCann filling it at right back, i’ll never know.

In the last 32, Wanderers faced tough opposition in Spanish side Atletico Madrid. Over two legs, Bolton defied the odds to beat Atletico 1-0, with El-Hadji Diouf scoring the decisive goal.

In the last 16 Wanderers were drawn against Portuguese giants, Sporting Lisbon.

6th March 2008. With the first leg at The Reebok Stadium, Wanderers had the chance to build a strong lead to take to Portugal the following week.

Unfortunately in the warm up, Bolton lost Jussi Jaaskelainen to injury and the Wanderers goalkeeper would go on to miss the rest of the season.

On the pitch Wanderers took the lead in the first half, with Gavin McCann scoring from fourteen yards. Sadly, after missing chances to extend the lead, Lisbon equalised through Simon Vukcevic. The game ended 1-1, with Lisbon scoring a vital away goal.

The odds were stacked against Bolton going into the second leg, but if Megson picked a strong enough side, Wanderers could have grabbed the win.

Well, Megson didn’t do that.

Under immense pressure to prioritise the league, Gary Megson left seven first team players out of the side that traveled to Portugal. Lisbon would go on to win the game 1-0, ending Bolton Wanderers’ second European campaign.

Sporting Lisbon v Bolton Wanderers - UEFA Cup Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

After the match, Gary Megson stated:

“I’ve said all along our main aim is to retain our place in the Premier League.

”In hindsight I still wouldn’t change anything, and there’s no sense of relief we are out either.

”We’re disappointed. You only have to take a look at the players in the dressing room because we certainly didn’t come here to get beat, but our priority has to be the Premier League.

”Now I expect all the players left behind to put a shift in at the JJB on Sunday, and hopefully get us a result.”

As you might remember, Bolton would go on to lose against Wigan Athletic 1-0, courtesy of a Emile Heskey goal.

Finishing the season with a five game unbeaten run, Bolton Wanderers ended the season in 16th place. Wanderers’ Premier League was secure. Gary Megson had done his job.

A key contributing factor to Wanderers wanting to stay in the Premier League was money. A football club is after all, a business.

For finishing 16th that season, Bolton Wanderers received £32 million in television revenue. That figure was the same amount Manchester United received the previous season for winning the Premier League, which is extraordinary.

It was a sign of where things were heading.

With an ever rising wage bill, Wanderers needed to remain in the Premier League to secure the high amounts of television revenue. As we’ve learned in recent years, The Championship doesn’t receive anywhere near the amount of money The Premier League does.

Compare the television revenue of the Premier League to the amount of prize money in the UEFA Cup.

Wanderers were paid €105,000 in the group stages, plus an extra €240,000 for reaching the Last 16. A place in the Quarter-Finals would have been worth just a mere €300,000. Eventual winners Zenit received €2.5 million.

It made much more sense financially to secure Wanderers’ Premier League status.

That being said, in hindsight, should Bolton Wanderers have fully gone for it in Europe?

As fans, we wanted to believe that Wanderers could have won the UEFA Cup.

Last week, I posed a hypothetical scenario on twitter. Would fans (knowing everything that has happened to the club in the last decade), have rather seen Wanderers go for it in Europe or prioritise the Premier League?

82% of people would have rather seen Wanderers go all out to reach the UEFA Cup final. But that’s the opinions of Wanderers fans, bitter and hurt having seen two relegations and the club almost sink into administration.

If Wanderers had pushed for it in Europe, would that have meant relegation? Would that have led to more financial trouble than what actually happened?

That being said, how incredible would it have been to see our beloved Bolton Wanderers reach the final of a major European competition?

The final in 2008 was played at the City of Manchester Stadium. Just imagine thousands of Wanderers fans making the short trip to watch the game.

All we can do now is look back and reminisce about those glorious nights under the lights and wonder, what if?