On Friday, Arsenal legend Arsene Wenger announced that he was leaving the Gunners at the end of the season, twenty-two years after replacing former Wanderers manager, Bruce Rioch.
Wenger has had numerous periods of success and failure in his two decades in England, creating a few fierce rivalries along the way. Despite having not faced up against Arsenal since 2012, Bolton Wanderers once had the title of being Arsenal’s l’équipe de bogey ultime, which roughly translates as ‘ultimate bogey team’. All of it started because of Wenger and Big Sam. Their touchline encounters, coupled with a conflict in style and culture, made for memorable meetings between the two sides.
April 26th 2003. The day that Bolton Wanderers and Sam Allardyce went from an easy win to an unwanted inconvenience. Arsenal were at their peak at this time. Robert Pires, Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and the rest. Just a team full of tremendous, world class talent.
The match seemed to be heading to a relatively routine conclusion for Arsenal, who needed a win to try and remain in the title race with Manchester United. A dull first half was turned on its head just ten minutes into the second half, as the Gunners raced into a two goal lead. Sylvain Wiltord and Robert Pires had put Arsenal in command - but Bolton did Manchester United a massive favour.
Le God himself, Youri Djorkaeff, pulled one back for Wanderers with fifteen minutes to go.
A draw had seemed unlikely, but Wanderers were used to defying to odds under Big Sam. In the 83rd minute, Bolton were level as Djorkaeff’s free kick was headed in by Martin Keown. Bolton held off Arsenal to claim a priceless draw. I can still picture the headline from the day after: ‘Ke-own goal’. Superb.
Arsene Wenger would later state that he was ‘scarred for life’ by that result. You may remember Jay-Jay Okocha’s rainbow flick over Ray Parlour’s head from a corner in stoppage time. Sublime skill from a world class player.
The rivalry seemed to grow from there.
In eight Premier League meetings between Arsenal and Bolton from 2003 to 2006, Wenger’s side won just once. That was a 2-1 win at Highbury during the invincible season. Wanderers were unbeaten at home against Arsenal in five successive seasons. After two draws, their first win came in the 2004/2005 season.
A fantastic header from Stelios was enough for Bolton to finally beat Arsenal. The following two seasons saw Wanderers beat Arsenal at The Reebok more convincingly. A 2-0 win in the 2005/2006 season was followed up by a 3-1 win in the 2006/2007 season.
That was the game that a former Gunner came back to haunt Wenger. Nicolas Anelka, who had been a teenage sensation once upon a time for Arsenal, got his first Premier League goals for Bolton in mesmerising style.
The first remains one of the greatest goals scored at The Reebok, as Anelka pelted the ball past an unmoved Jens Lehmann into the top corner. The second was a sublime finish after a simply wonderful through ball from Ivan Campo.
If there was anyone who revelled in beating Arsenal, it was Sam Allardyce. As he said in his autobiography:
“I really enjoyed beating Arsenal more than anyone when I was in charge at Bolton. We’d really got to them and Arsene Wenger hated us. There was one time he wouldn’t shake hands with me at Highbury because we got a draw. I saw him ripping his tie off and throwing it on the floor in anger. He takes it all very personally and has an air of arrogance”.
Arsene Wenger can be proud of what he has achieved in his time at Arsenal. He assembled one of the greatest sides the English game has ever seen.
But for a few wonderful years, he couldn’t get the better of little Bolton Wanderers.