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Bolton Wanderers Season 96/97: The smell of success

Lee reminisces about that record breaking season

Colin Todd

The first time I entered the embankment and climbed up those concrete steps to reveal a freshly watered green pitch, glistening beautifully under the floodlights, my twelve year-old eyes quickly formed an undeniable twinkle.

In contrast to that wondrous sight was the unmistakable stench of meat and potato pies, beer and farts that circled my nose, all mixing together to form a potent cologne, continuously wafting into my poor young nostrils ad infinitum.

It mattered not that my sense of smell was under attack, as it quickly transpired that this team in white, one that my friend Sam had encouraged me to see live after I had started to grow fond of them in my early high school years, was destined to be an absolute joy to behold.

A heady mix of true footballing intelligence, a swashbuckling, fearless brand of attacking play and a rock solid base. All this knitted together by a fighting team spirit and will to win from a group of proper leaders that was never more evident than in the battle of Burnden Park vs Wolves.

We overwhelmed our old foes 3-0 on the 18th January with a performance that combined grit and grace in the kind of measure that meant only one thing, promotion to the Premier League beckoned.

This team forged together by Colin Todd was simply too good for every single one of their rivals, in every single department.

The midfield was the hub of the side, like any great team. A work of art. We had collected a smorgasbord of tremendous talent and terrific attitudes.

Michael Johansen, a scampering, belligerent nuisance down the wing, swinging in a plethora of accurate crosses and firing in screamers from his tiny right boot.

His compatriot, a flock of blonde hair bouncing in the wind as he strode forward time and time again with purpose and precision.

Per Frandsen was by far the cheaper part of the dynamite Danish double deal, done that summer for £2.5m but his legend and legacy would eventually stretch far beyond that of ‘smurf’, as Johansen was affectionately known.

A stunning exorcet missile of a shot against Man City on his debut in that first ever game ended up being the winning goal and instantly endeared him to me and also to those present at Burnden that night.

The technical superiority and unmatched vision of Scott Sellars, the excellence of execution. A goal to seal the title at Maine Road a fine example of the kind of output this supremely gifted technician was capable of on a regular basis. If only we’d signed him sooner in his peak years so we could’ve benefitted further from his powers.

The youthful exuberance, boundless energy and wand of a left peg that encapsulated Alan Thompson. The ever-smiling, gliding Geordie building a superb on field understanding with all his teammates but namely Frandsen in centre midfield and Nathan Blake up front, constantly slipping the Welshman through with perfectly timed through balls. Eleven league goals were hit by this fantastic all-action midfielder who could score with power or finesse and would almost replicate that tally in the Premier League the following season.

The maturing fine wine that was John Sheridan, plucked from Sheffield Wednesday’s reserves on loan in November and, after hugely impressing, made permanent as Christmas neared.

The wily veteran knew his way around a midfield battle but at his best, combined the poise and penetration of Pirlo in his pomp and passed opponents off the pitch.

Jamie Pollock, a hulking great figure of a man with a big heart and an even bigger paunch when he arrived in mid-November after a sojourn in the sun at Osasuna.

After an inauspicious beginning the stocky, Stockton destroyer ended up a pivotal player by the season’s end, filling in both on the right of midfield and in his preferred central position as injuries and suspensions hit.

David Lee needs no introduction to any Trotters fan and his contribution was still pertinent despite his renowned lightning speed beginning to wane and playing second fiddle to Johansen in the main.

The team was anchored by some absolute pillars of strength. Belfast born Gerry Taggart had been plundered from soon-to-be (distant) promotion rivals Barnsley for a then club record fee of £1.5m at the beginning of the failed Premier League campaign. After shaking off the disappointment of relegation he returned trimmer and hungrier, proving to be an immovable object for opposition strikers.

He was partnered with the evergreen Chris Fairclough, who too survived a shaky first season under the joint managership of Colin Todd and Roy McFarland to become a mainstay of the side, forming an impenetrable wall in front of Keith Branagan.

He also scored seven often vital goals from corners, while playing every single minute of our record-breaking league campaign.

The pairing were flanked by two bonafide club legends.

Gudni Bergsson and Jimmy Phillips were the epitome of perfect professionals. Always a seven out of ten or better, ever available for selection, Bolton was in their hearts and they played like it every time they took to the field.

Bryan Small was stolen from Aston Villa’s reserves for a minimal fee as a back up for Phillips and the left-back played ten games including a significant role in the aforementioned steamrollering of Wolves, swinging over a peach of a cross for John McGinlay for the all-important opener.

Stephen McAnespie and Scott Green filled in sparingly for Bergsson but both showed the same grit and determination when they did so, traits which ran through the veins of this terrific team.

Behind them stood a fantastic goalkeeper in Keith Branagan.

One of the finest shot stoppers to wear the Bolton no.1 jersey, he was a reassuring presence in goal despite being slightly under average height for a keeper. He was sorely missed when injured or suspended as his understudy Gavin Ward was unfortunately quite vastly inferior to the Republic of Ireland international in every facet, which showed in the matches Ward played. One that particularly comes to mind is when he came on for Branagan with moments left at Prenton Park, in order to be eligible for a title winners medal by playing ten games. Within seconds of entering the pitch Ward would be beaten by a Lee Jones strike into the far corner of his net that would ever so slightly put a dampener on the ongoing celebrations, denying Wanderers the double delight of 100 points to go along with the 100 goals that Pollock brought up when putting us 2-1 ahead midway through the second half.

In all fairness, Branagan may well have himself struggled to save what was admittedly a superbly struck shot.

Up front was the greatest strike partnership I’ve still ever witnessed as a Bolton fan after 25 years.

Super John McGinlay and Nathan Blake. The Scottish-Welsh axis terrified Championship defenders, firing forty-four league goals and 55 in all competitions.

Blake had been somewhat of a misfit after signing from Sheffield United for £1.2m in December of the previous season and managing just a solitary strike as Bolton were relegated.

However, come August, enter a man transformed and reenergised; bullying and bludgeoning his way past centre halves as he forged a tremendous, almost telepathic understanding with terrace hero McGinlay. The Scot may have netted the bigger goals tally but that was in no small part to Blake’s tireless work. Power, pace and no little panache were all part of Blake’s varied skillset, exemplified by his bazooka like effort in the pivotal win over West Brom at Burnden. His assets enabled McGinlay the space he craved to finish off the host of chances that were continuously created for him, while Blake kept defenders constantly occupied with his pure physicality and threat in behind.

McGinlay was simply irrepressible, it being more of a surprise if you didn’t see his name on the scoresheet in what was a stellar season for the Scottish international, who also regained his place in the national side. Thirty league goals were scored with a variety of efforts.

His ball-striking technique, inventiveness in front of goal and a superb leap coupled with his prodigious heading ability meant however a chance came about, you and everyone around would be almost jumping up and down in anticipation of the ball nestling in the net.

The youngster Scott Taylor, signed, like McGinlay and Branagan before him from Millwall, made some bright cameos, showing an eye for goal and some intelligent movement which would come to fruition later in his career in a very profitable spell with Blackpool. A memorable strike in the astounding 6-1 drubbing of Spurs in the league cup showed promise but he couldn’t usurp the deadly duo for obvious reasons, the pair only missing 7 league games between them all season.

The managers son, Andy, was also given his chance when injuries intermittently beset, making 6 starts and nine appearances from the bench in the league. He proved somewhat of an auxiliary player, filling in at centre half, right back and in central midfield while showing the promise that would deliver a very decent career in the game.

He possessed a canny knack for reading the game and was an adept passer of the ball from the back, not unlike his father.

So there we have it.

Man for man, this squad was unrivalled for the quality in each position and its cohesiveness as a unit.

For me, this is the best Bolton team of my lifetime when you amalgamate the results, league position (we ended up 18 points clear of Barnsley in 2nd), style of play and the unquantifiable feeling when a team and it’s supporters gel and everything just ‘clicks’.

The final game at Burnden Park brought the home season to a fitting crescendo. McGinlay tapping in two late goals in a 4-1 victory over Charlton, despite trailing at the break, deservedly earning the accolade of the final goalscorer at the beloved, if by then ramshackle old ground.

My first season watching the Wanderers couldn’t of gone much better and for the next decade and even a little beyond, following the Whites in their sparkling new home in BL6 was a white knuckle ride, mainly full of unbelievable highs. This particular rollercoaster would, however, eventually grind slowly to a grim halt since that fateful day in the Potteries.

Oh for the smell of beer, pies and farts on that embankment....