The mid-2000s Bolton Wanderers side will be forever associated, perhaps unfairly, with a brand of ugly and direct football that purists love to refer as “hoofball”.
In actuality, this team, which finished in 6th, 8th and 7th in consecutive seasons between 2004 and 2007, was about much more than just punting the ball upfield.Embed from Getty Images
This was a side that contained a frankly bizarre mishmash of talent — some former continental superstars supposedly on the wane, a few up-and-coming English stalwarts, and one or two unpredictable game-changers.
Like most Sam Allardyce teams ever since, this Bolton’s side’s defence was in all honesty, pretty unremarkable. And yet, it was so well-drilled and honed as a unit, that it exuded solidity and confidence.
It all started right at the back, with goalkeeper Jussi Jääskeläinen providing the calm and effective base. Over the three seasons from 2004-2007, he had 35 clean sheets. For a team outside the top bracket, that’s a fantastic record.
Jääskeläinen would happily point to the men in front of him as the reasons for his shut-outs. The experienced French defender Bruno N’Gotty formed a key part of that solidity, for the 04/05 and 05/06 seasons. Having plied his trade at some of France’s top teams (Lyon, PSG, Marseille) and after a brief stint at AC Milan, N’Gotty made the switch to England, initially on loan for the 01/02 season.
By the end of the 04/05 season, in which Bolton secured their highest ever Premier League finish of 6th, N’Gotty had cemented his place as the club’s most important defender. He received the supporters’ player of the season award that year — no mean feat considering the other talent in the squad.
N’Gotty’s defensive partners at this time were somewhat less nailed-on.
Tel Ben Haim, Radhi Jaïdi and Ricardo Gardner shared much of the duties, but it was the arrival of two living legends of the game that will stay longest in the memories of Bolton fans.
Fernando Hierro and Ivan Campo had become two of Spain’s most experienced and best-regarded defenders in the 90s. Hierro was the captain of the national team, and had spent 14 years at Real Madrid. Campo had also spent time at Madrid as well as Valencia, and a very good Real Mallorca side that finished 5th in La Liga.
Both were ostensibly centre-backs but at Bolton, each played in slightly more pronounced roles at the base of midfield.Embed from Getty Images
Hierro had an air of Beckenbauer about him. Defensively resolute but with an attacking verve — he scored an astounding 109 goals in his club career, mainly from central defence.
Campo was more bullying and harrying, and certainly at Bolton, became a model example of what a defensive midfielder should be about.
Hierro only spent one year at the Reebok — already 34 when he joined, he retired fully at the end of the 04/05 season.
Campo stayed with Bolton for four full seasons and became a club hero for his work-rate, his desire, and for scoring the occasional wonder goal.
In a packed midfield, two domestic players at opposite ends of their careers provided the consistency. Gary Speed and Kevin Nolan were by no means glamorous players, certainly not compared with some of their continental colleagues, but they offered a composure and assuredness that flowed into the rest of the team.
Speed was considered a consummate professional by his team-mates, one of few players of his generation to take sports science and nutrition very seriously. It is no coincidence he played until nearly 40 years old.Embed from Getty Images
He was very much Allardyce’s on-field deputy, and ended up briefly taking on the first-team coach role upon Allardyce’s departure.
Kevin Nolan’s career followed a similar trajectory to that of Speed, albeit a decade or so behind.
Now player-manager of Notts County, Nolan had been a Premier League fixture for almost two decades and that began at Bolton.
Having played a crucial role in the side’s promotion to the top division in the 00/01 season, by the middle of the decade, he was one of Bolton’s most consistent performers, playing in 36, 36 and 31 Premier League matches across the 04/05, 05/06, 06/07 seasons, respectively.
His longevity in the top division, like Speed, is testament to his professionalism and commitment to the game.
So far this team reads like a who’s-who of solid, defensive, Allardycean players. And though it is clear this was a central part of Allardyce’s plan, it would be doing this Bolton side a disservice not to remember the quality of the attacking options at his disposal.
One of these attacking players was Stelios Giannakopoulos, a nimble and skilled Greek, who spent his time just behind the forwards, pinging in deadly accurate strikes from distance or joining the party in the box late on.Embed from Getty Images
He finished as the club’s top scorer in the the 05/06 season with 12 goals and will always be fondly remembered by the Bolton fans as much for their propensity to create terrace chants around his name as his on-field activity.
Someone who is less fondly remembered, despite his clear talent, is El Hadj Diouf. Having made the switch from Liverpool in the 04/05 season, after two unsuccessful seasons at Anfield, Diouf did little to ingratiate himself to the Bolton faithful in his time at the Reebok stadium.
Incidents of spitting and other misdemeanours meant that his playing time was often limited by bans or disciplinary proceedings.
And yet, there was something there. If his head was in the game, he could be mercurial.
Just like Nicolas Anelka. There was talent there, no doubt. You don’t play for Arsenal, Real Madrid, PSG, Liverpool and Chelsea without talent.
But like Diouf, all-too-often, Anelka’s on-field performances were overshadowed by misdeamanours, fallings-out with coaches and offensive gestures.
Bolton was just one of the six English teams that Anelka played for during his career, and it was by no means his most successful spell in the Premier League.Embed from Getty Images
Both Anelka and Diouf had the talent but not the attitude — very much in contrast to another key attacking player of this team: Henrik Pederson.
Pederson would be the first to admit he didn’t have the talent of Anelka or Diouf, but what he lacked in natural ability, he made up for in hard-work.
Though a striker by trade, Pedersen was more than happy to chip in at left-wing or even left-back on occasion, for the good of the team.
The Star Player:
And while of these players had a key function to the success of the side, there is only one player who defined it.
Jay Jay “so good they named him twice” Okocha is arguably the best player Bolton have ever had. He most certainly ought to be considered one of the best free transfers in history.Embed from Getty Images
His was a talent so innate, so aesthetic, that it was only really comparable to the very best of the game. Though he never reached the heights of the Cruyffs, Maradonas, Ronaldinhos in terms of trophies or goals, his natural skill would not leave him out of place in such company.
If you haven’t watched Okocha’s Bolton highlights before, I urge you to do it. If you have, do it again.
There are players who are great because of the goals they scored, there are players who are great because of the games they won, and then there is Okocha — the purest, most instinctually wonderful representation of football played as art.
Let’s not forget, at Bolton, he was amongst solid, consistent but hardly flair players. Single-handedly, he managed to make that side a joy to watch.
When he did score, he scored the most incomprehensible, awe-inspiring goals. But whenever he got the ball, magic happened. Flicks, tricks and feints the like of which are rarely seen in English football, were Okocha’s bread and butter.Embed from Getty Images
Truly a unique talent that elevated this Bolton side from workmanlike to wondrous. In a supporters poll in 2005, Okocha finished second behind Nat Lofthouse as the greatest Bolton players of all time, and there’s few who would argue even today.
In recent years, particularly since his misdeeds as England manager, Sam Allardyce has become something of a meme of a manager.Embed from Getty Images
But at Bolton, there is no doubt that he was at the absolute peak of his game.
As mentioned, this team was a mixed bag in terms of talent. It was Allardyce’s ability to draw it all together that was the real success story.
To guide a team to three consecutive top eight finishes, still his highest ever league finishes as a manager, qualifying for Europe for the first time in the club’s history, on what was effectively no budget, is a huge achievement.
Though his management style and tactics might be taken as rugged, his willingness to give free reign to the flair players in the team, like Okocha, must be applauded.
Whatever his current reputation, no one can take away that Bolton legacy.
Qualifying for Europe for the first time in the club’s history will be the moment most fondly remembered by supporters. In that 04/05 season, Bolton finished level on points with Liverpool (who also happened to be European champions that season — who could forget) and just three points of Champions League qualification.Embed from Getty Images
That’s for a team whose transfers in for the season totalled less than £1million. To compare, Liverpool spent over £40million that year.
The feat was then repeated two seasons later with a 7th placed finish to a season where they peaked as high as 3rd at times.
Ultimately, that would be as good as things got for Bolton, with Allardyce leaving at the end of the 06/07 season, citing lack of investment to push the club forward. Five years later, Bolton were relegated and have yet to bounce back since.
Like many of the clubs we’ll cover in this series, it was an ignominious end to a wonderful story, of a hodge-podge team of overachievers, who shone all too briefly.
Written by Jackson Rawlings.