It is a known fact that the Premier League does not like an underdog succeeding. Every time they achieve any level of success and challenge the established elite clubs, they are picked apart and pushed back down. Leicester City in the 2015-16 season and the club in the spotlight in this article Bolton Wanderers from 2002 to 2007 are classic examples of this.
Bolton Wanderers: The Anti-heroes of the Premier League
A newly-promoted team signing almost only ageing players, most way past their primes. It should not have worked for Sam Allardyce and Bolton Wanderers. It was a plan designed to fail, but like all fairy tales, it worked. Oh my, it worked.
Bolton Wanderers: A Yo-Yo club
Before 2002, Bolton Wanderers were known as a yo-yo club. Constant promotions and relegations earned them the infamous nickname.
Under the legendary Colin Todd, the club was a fearless, attacking outfit scoring a mammoth 100 goals in 1996/97. But for how great Todd was, he was not the man to manage them in the top-flight.
Then in October of 1999, came the change. Sam Allardyce was handed a ten-year contract after impressing for clubs like Notts County and Blackpool. He took the bottom half table outfit all the way to the playoffs and even though he lost to Ipswich, it was nothing short of a heroic feat.
The rest as they say is history.
The Rise of Big Sam and Bolton Wanderers
At end of his debut season, Allardyce opted to sell their two best players in Claus Jenson and Eidur Gudjohnsen for a combined fee of 8 million. He then invested the money in signing Colin Hendry, Ian Marshall, Micheal Rickets, re-signing Per Frandsen and giving youth academy graduate Kevin Nolan a chance in the first team.
This was the first time Bolton Wanderers saw Big Sam’s unorthodox off the field strategies.
Armed with his new signings and a fresh Bolton team, he took them to the play-offs finals after just about losing out on automatic promotion, defeated by David Moyes’ Preston to go to achieve their third promotion in seven years.
Once in the top-flight, the club’s horizon expanded and now they could look to other European countries to sign players.
To find the best players and play their best game, Allardyce used a technique he learned back at Tampa Bay during his stint at the football club in the United States. The Moneyball method. He consulted the same sports analysis firm, Prozone, that Alex Ferguson used to win the treble in 1998/99.
This strategy was still rare in the UK and Big Sam was one of the first managers in the country to use it.
He based his game around the “fantastic four”. They had to keep 16 clean sheets in 38 games to avoid relegation, they had a 70% chance of winning the game if they scored first. 33% of goals had to come from set-pieces(in-swinging cross were more effective) and had an 80% of avoiding defeat if they outran their opponents at a speed of 5.5m per second.
Though it sounds robotic and it was, it got them success. It also got him the nickname of “results”. Someone who cares only about results.
But when you are an underdog, you cannot care about playing beautiful football, you care about getting results and that’s exactly what Sam Allardyce did.
In 2002 and then again in 2003, the club survived relegation finishing 16th and then 17th respectively. But this was not the end. Allardyce and Bolton wanted to become better and rise higher. And they did.
Bolton’s Not So Big-Name Signings
Bolton’s rise to the top flight opened up the possibilities for a bigger array of talent.
First of them was the Euros winner, Youri Djorkaeff. It was early 2002, when Youri, one of France’s most exciting talents, decided to switch to Bolton after a fallout with Kaiserslautern, his club in Germany.
Sam also signed Bruno N’Gotty, another Frenchman in the same season. The immensely talented centre-back signed initially on loan, but then later made his transfer permanent.
Both stayed at the club and saw the incredible rise it went through under Sam Allardyce.
At the start of next season, he convinced Ivan Campo to switch the Bernabeu for the Reebok. A player who would be absolutely adored by the fans, Campo’s career was revived by Sam Allardyce as he played him at defensive midfielder position rather than at the centre-back position he was used to in Spain.
However, Campo was not his biggest name signing. It was the Nigerian midfielder and future Premier League legend, Jay-Jay Okocha, the man who was so good they named him twice.
The midfielder had an immense amount of experience, having played in three World Cups (captained his team in one), for clubs around the world and been a mentor to talents like Ronaldinho at Paris Saint-Germain.
His four years at the club added his name to the Premier League’s folklore as he entertained the crowds with ecstatic footwork and an array of skills, which have now become symbolic to his name.
His signings did not stop there. His signing of Fernando Hierro gave the club one of the finest players in their history. A lot of eyebrows were raised when a 34-year-old Garry Speed was signed for 750,000 Euros from Newcastle United, but Allardyce got another three seasons out of him, making him too a fan favourite at Bolton.
He also signed El Hadji Diouf, a winger with a toxic reputation in English football, and could get the best out of the infamous player.
In 2004, Bolton was able to secure a League Cup semi-final and an eighth position finish in the league.
The next season, they finished sixth in the premier league and for the first time in the club’s history were able to play in an intercontinental tournament in Europe. Even though they bowed out in the tournament’s knockout stage, they were able to defeat Zenit St.Petersburgh and get a draw out of eventual winners, Sevilla.
The next two season got them two more eighth-place finishes. Sam Allardyce was able to achieve his success by avoiding everything that the so-called elite clubs of English football did.
Sam Allardyce’s side will not be remembered for the array of trophies and not even for their all-star cast. But they will be remembered for leaving their hearts out on the field and for the commitment of the players to the club.
Even the fans understood the special situation of the club and supported them through the highs and the lows. A loyalty that is rare in modern-day football, where all fans want is shiny signings and a big trophy cabinet.
Diouf was known as a journeyman in England, due to his toxic behaviour. But he stayed the longest at Bolton. The atmosphere mixed with Big Sam’s commitment to his players is the reason why.
When Hierro retired, the Reebok was filled to the brim with fans and when he was substituted, almost every single fan in the stands was in tears.
Stelios talked about his time at Bolton by saying, “You can tell just by coming into my house back in Greece, it’s full of memories [from Bolton], so I have the club in my heart.”
Most of these players were strangers to the country of England and for all of them to find a home in this country was no short of a miracle. If it sounds overly emotional, it really was.
Sam Allardyce and this iconic Bolton Wanderers team wrote history. They changed the way football was looked at in England. His style was subsequently emulated in other teams, such as Stoke City, but few can say they actually did what Bolton was able to.
Allardyce may have moved on and Bolton may have fallen through the ranks of English football, but his and his players’ legacy stayed and will continue to be part of the Premier League Folklore for years. Like they say, “They don’t make them like that anymore.”
This team was the team you loved to hate. The anti-heroes of the Premier League. They will always be Premier League’s most unlikely success story.
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