As a group, football fans and journalists like their stereotypes. Arsenal? Yeah, they can do tappy-tappy stuff, but they don’t like it up ‘em. Stoke? Thugs to a man, long ball merchants. Diego Maradona? Utter lunatic who can’t manage (okay, just because it’s a stereotype, doesn’t mean it’s wrong). The point is that we always feel a little uncomfortable when our preconceptions are challenged.
So for a long time the consensus has been that the only positive thing to come out of Bolton is a lying pet-shop owner with a dead parrot. However, Owen Coyle has been disrupting the natural order of things. His team have recorded three victories in their last four games but more importantly they’re playing a really attractive brand of football. Sam Allardyce might regard passing the ball on the ground as “sissy football” but Coyle has catapulted the northern club into the giddy heights of fourth place at the end of Saturday.
In the past month Bolton have emphatically dismantled both Spurs (albeit coming off the back of a midweek game) and Newcastle by a combined score line of 9-3. Newcastle may have only been promoted, but this season has proved that they are a very solid side while Spurs have media proclaimed Worlds Best Player Ever Gareth Bale. Only Manchester United at Old Trafford managed to inflict as harsh a defeat as Bolton. The run of form is unlikely to last and there are some tough fixtures games coming up (Man City, Sunderland, Chelsea and Liverpool). But if they can keep their form going at home with their next few games against Blackpool, Blackburn and West Brom they will be in an excellent position to push for a Europa League place by the end of the season.
Indeed finishing in the Europa League could become increasingly important. Bolton are on the pitch a very fine club to watch at the moment, but sadly off field the picture is much less rosy. The club is in £93m worth of debt. Record signing Elmander (8 goals in 14 games this season) could be allowed to leave on a Bosman at the end of the season. The wage bill is way too high. The club is going to have to tighten its metaphorical belt in order to avoid financial difficulties. Given how much Coyle has done with the squad at his disposal, this is a real disappointment. It would be very interesting to see what he would be able to achieve with a modest Premiership budget as opposed to the funds that have been available at Burnley and later Bolton.
This has been a season of real twists and turns already. All three promoted clubs have acquitted themselves very well and, other than West Ham, there seems to be nobody destined for the drop. But if you had said at the start of the season that the top four in mid-November would be made up of Chelsea, United, Arsenal and Bolton the men in white coats would have been called. For years Bolton have been the least sexy club in the league and with good reason but Coyle is dramatically reversing the image of this long maligned club.