“Struggling” is not an unfamiliar term for Bolton F.C. in their 11-year spell in the EPL. There were moments they fought against relegation; there were times they lost the team balance due to European distraction; there were times they had to resist the departure of their key players.
Sam Allardyce has raised Bolton’s profile in England, beating Preston North End in a play-off final to return to the Premier League in the 00/01 campaign. High-profile stars in their twilight were persuaded to the Reebok stadium and when blended with the industrious and vigorous Wanderers, Allardyce introduced a pragmatic style – to say the least – of football that saw the Trotters finish in the top half of the Premier League table in 4 consecutive seasons, a record only surpassed by the traditional big four.
When Big Sam resigned due to personal reasons in the final stages of the 06/07 season, Bolton finished 7th and qualified for the UEFA Cup. Yet the next season was nothing alike as a poor run of results saw them narrowly avoiding relegation on the final day of the season.
Owen Coyle was hired mid-way through 09/10 season to replace Gary Megson, hoping to restore the once-forceful Big Sam era. Having retained another season in the top flight, Coyle, however, was given little financial backing with debt piling up in Bolton’s account.
Having already been forced to trim the squad, Owen Coyle had to count on young guns and free signings to carry the team last year. In truth, Reo-Coker, Eagles, Tuncay, Boyata, Kakuta, and last-minute acquisition David N’Gog should be quite enough to make up for the loss of Elmander, Cohen and Matthew Taylor.
Nevertheless, things weren’t going their way even in pre-season games. South Korean ace Chun-Young Lee suffered a broken leg to keep him out for the whole season. Stuart Holden, another impressive player, failed to return to fitness after six months of rehabilitation and was ruled out for the season as well.
Things got even worse with Muamba’s tragic collapse in March that left Bolton without the service of three key midfielders, which would form an above-par midfield with Reo-Coker and Martin Petrov. The lack of protection in front of the back four was risky, with Wheater and Tim Ream struggling to hold on the speedy Premier League strikers while Gary Cahill was set to leave.
The departure of Johan Elmander hurt indeed. Featuring a 4-5-1 formation, Elmander was the perfect striker with strong physicality and the ability to strike the ball with both feet. Coyle’s dubious striker choice was also a costly mistake. When Klasnic was sent off after posting some impressive performances early in the season, Coyle turned to Frenchman David N’Gog instead of captain Kevin Davies.
N’Gog’s style reminds us of his compatriot Nicolas Anelka, who played for Bolton in 2006-08, but N’Gog’s inability to convert chances has been widely criticised. With a team who banks their scoring heavily on dead balls and capitalising on chaotic situations in the box, one can imagine how disastrous it could be when N’Gog was the primary striker. Rumours of Coyle’s fallout with fan favourite Kevin Davies stirred up unwanted discontent. Davies’ unstoppable scoring form near the end of the season overshadowed the internal disputes, but also amplified his manager’s wrong decision in starting N’Gog instead. Bolton finally finished the season with the second worst goal difference in the league.
Many are more sympathetic towards Bolton’s catastrophic season, when even the referee’s decision went against them on the very last day, but the quality of performance they showed on both ends of the field was well below standard.
Relegation will almost certainly be followed by the exodus of big names. Reo-Coker, Ivan Klasnic etc have already left the club after the final day, whereas Jaaskelainen is also tipped to rejoin Big Sam at the newly promoted Hammers; fortunately, 35 years old Kevin Davies is determined to stay with Bolton. If they can retain the service of Chun Young Lee, Mark Davies, Stuart Holden and the rising star Bogdan, together with Coyle’s experience of floating between the Premier League and Championship, Bolton should still be ranked as a front-runner in the promotion race next season.