Unexpected journeys: When Bolton knocked through the European doors

Words By Sean Cole Illustration by Philippe Fenner
May 29, 2019

Bolton Wanderers and Sam Allardyce were a match made in heaven. It was a partnership that just felt right from the start, and helped to elevate the reputations of both club and manager far beyond where anyone expected.

Allardyce took over from Colin Todd in October 1999 and was tasked with returning Bolton to the top flight. He did so via the play-offs at the end of his first full season. Their previous two stays in the Premier League had lasted a single year, and the same outcome was widely predicted this time around, but Bolton were savvier and better drilled. Although they were physical and unafraid of showing it, they had quality too.

That was only enhanced over the years as Bolton became a rescue home for a diverse group of players more accustomed to competing for trophies at fashionable clubs on the continent. Jay-Jay Okocha, Youri Djorkaeff, Ivan Campo, Fernando Hierro and Fredi Bobic all enjoyed revitalising spells of various lengths at the Reebok Stadium and helped to establish the Trotters as one of the division’s great over-performers.

“We had an unbelievable squad of players,” says Joey O’Brien, who was just breaking into the first team having come through the club’s academy. “They had incredible experience of world football and bringing them all together helped turn Bolton Wanderers, which was a small enough club, into one that competed with the top end of the Premier League on a regular basis.

“For a young player, like myself at the time, it was brilliant to see how they trained and how they worked. They’d look after themselves in terms of their diet, going to the gym and the work they’d do after training. They’d always try to push themselves and find that extra little bit to work on – their shooting, their passing. They were great guys and always willing to help out with a bit of advice.”

In the 2004-05 season, their fourth in the Premier League, Bolton finished sixth to qualify for the UEFA Cup. It was to be the club’s first taste of European football and one of the final acts of Allardyce’s time in charge. Entering at the first round alongside Everton and Middlesbrough, they faced Lokomotiv Plovdiv for a place in the group stage. A controversial club, with links to organised crime, they were a compelling proposition.

Falling behind in both games before recovering to win each 2-1, Bolton’s progress was far from straightforward. With just over ten minutes of the second leg remaining in Bulgaria, they were heading out of the competition on away goals. An Aleksandar Tunchev own goal drew them level on the night before a late finish from Kevin Nolan gifted Bolton a fortunate victory.

“We were winning going over there but it was a really hostile atmosphere in Bulgaria,” recalls O’Brien. “I remember reading that the owner of the club had been assassinated a couple of days before the game, which was something different. That was interesting and there was a proper atmosphere there. The place was rocking.”

The second leg had particular significance for the teenager, as he made his full debut for the club. “On a personal note, to start a game like that showed that the manager trusted me. It gave me great belief and I was able to build on that throughout the rest of the season.”

Bolton were drawn in a difficult group with eventual champions Sevilla, Zenit St. Petersburg, Besiktas and Vitoria Guimaraes. Playing each other only once, the top three teams would progress to the knockout stages. First up was a trip to Turkey and the notoriously hostile Inonu Stadium.

Bolton went there on the back of a 5-1 defeat to Chelsea in the Premier League and Allardyce made wholesale changes to his team, with many fringe players given the chance to start. Hemmed in early on, they went 1-0 down after seven minutes to a splendid goal from the barrel-chested Brazilian striker Ailton. A point was rescued through Jared Borgetti’s strike.

“Still, to this day it’s the best atmosphere I’ve ever played in,” says O’Brien. “It must have been an hour-and-a-half before kick-off but the fans were already in there going mental. They weren’t happy with the draw and they were still there when we were leaving the stadium.”

Two weeks later and Bolton played host to Zenit St. Petersburg. Both sides struggled with the conditions on a heavy and rain-soaked surface. As the game wore on, it only got worse. “I don’t know how the game wasn’t called off,” says the former Republic of Ireland international. “It was unbelievable. The rainfall at the Reebok was incredible.

“You couldn’t really pass the ball more than five or ten yards on the ground. It wasn’t rolling at all, the rain was that heavy. I ended up having to flick passes to get the ball off the ground because the weather was so bad, but we got a result in the end.”

Kevin Davies missed a couple of presentable opportunities but Kevin Nolan once more demonstrated his knack for being in the right place at the right time, turning home the winner after Zenit failed to deal with a high ball into the box.

Four points from their opening two games meant Bolton were well set to go through ahead of a meeting with the weakest side in the group, Vitoria. There were few chances for either side, with the drama saved for the end. In the 86th minute Marek Saganowski slipped clear of his marker at the far post to head in what seemed destined to be the winner but Ricardo Vaz Te had other ideas.

The young Portuguese striker came off the bench to have an immediate impact. He scored a superb equaliser, just his second goal for the club, when latching onto El Hadji Diouf’s flick and firing into the top corner with the outside of his right foot. Vaz Te had been on the pitch for barely a minute when he sent the travelling fans wild.

“I’d obviously come through the academy with Ricardo Vaz Te and going back to Portugal and scoring was fantastic for him. Me and him were close so I remember that night really well. There was great support from the Bolton fans and for him to have his moment there, particularly as a young kid, was special. I’m still in contact with Ricardo and I know that he still regards that as a precious moment in his career.”

The following week’s results put Vitoria out of the running and Bolton on the brink of qualifying. They knew that a draw with Sevilla would be enough to go through, while a win would see them top the group ahead of opponents who were far more experienced in European competition.

Brazilian international Luis Fabiano led the line for Sevilla, who played slick, passing football. He tormented the home side’s defence throughout and rattled the post with a half-volley. Against the run of play, substitute Bruno N’Gotty put Bolton ahead from a corner but Adriano equalised soon after. A share of the spoils did the job as the Trotters finished third.

They were drawn to face Olympique Marseille in the second round, whose talented side featured a young Samir Nasri and Franck Ribery. In goal was World Cup-winning veteran Fabien Barthez. They would prove to be tricky opponents but Bolton had reason for optimism, coming into the first leg at the Reebok Stadium on an eight-game unbeaten run in all competitions.

“When you look back at the players they had, Marseille were a fantastic team. Franck Ribery was playing left wing at the time and he was interchanging with Samir Nasri on the other side so they were my direct opponents. Across the two games you could see they were quality players and top operators. They were both building their reputations at that stage,” says O’Brien.

The defences were on top in a tight first leg that finished goalless. Bolton were left particularly frustrated when two penalty appeals, one for a handball from Jay-Jay Okocha’s cross, and another for a foul on Stelios Giannakopoulos, were waved away by the referee. It was advantage Marseille ahead of a reunion on the French Riviera.

Although far from capacity, the stunning Stade Velodrome was in fine voice for the deciding match. Bolton upset the hosts, taking a surprise lead after 25 minutes. Barthez fumbled an Okocha cross and Stelios was on hand to finish. Abdoulaye Faye briefly thought he’d doubled their advantage but his goal was ruled out for offside.

Bolton seemed comfortable and were on course to go in 1-0 up at the break until Marseille’s best two players combined to devastating effect. Samir Nasri looked up and picked out the run of Franck Ribery, who powered in a rare header to equalise and lift the crowd. Although Bolton still held the advantage on away goals, an arduous second half awaited.

Sam Allardyce watched on from the stands as Marseille dominated. Their pressure eventually told in unfortunate circumstances as Tal Ben Haim turned a dangerous Habib Beye cross past Jussi Jaaskelainen. It was a devastating blow and Bolton were unable to recover. Two strikers were introduced off the bench to force the issue but neither could find a way through. Henrik Pedersen even had to be replaced by a third as he was stretchered off.

“We gave a really sloppy goal away just before half time. You could sense that their fans were just turning on their own players and I think if we’d gone in ahead at half time it would have been a different ball game. They got that goal, which just killed us a little bit. We huffed and puffed in the second half but those are the fine margins of football. Everyone has one of those stories.”

The Trotters had performed well in their debut European campaign, and come close to a place in the last 16 of the UEFA Cup. They would enjoy another run in the same competition two years later, which included an enthralling 2-2 draw away to Bayern Munich, but it didn’t quite have that same wide-eyed sense of wonder as the first.

By then Allardyce was gone and Bolton were at the start of their long descent. Within a decade they were back down to League One and suffering debilitating financial difficulties. Promotion followed, along with a final day survival, but the season just gone was an unmitigated disaster. Relegation was the least of it, as unpaid staff, an unfulfilled fixture and administration betrayed shameful mismanagement. A club on its knees, the days of top-half Premier League finishes and facing leading continental opposition are a distant memory.

“I always remember Sam [Allardyce] telling the lads to treasure these moments and get the most out of them because you don’t know when they’ll come around again, if they ever do. As a young player I was taking so much information in but that message really stuck in my head. That year we had a right good go and gave a great account of ourselves,” says O’Brien.

“Sam created something special at that time. It was great being a Premier League club and getting good results against the big boys when the Reebok was rocking, but I think those European nights just added something extra, especially for the fans who travelled to the away games. The support was always great.”

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