What a time this was to be a Bolton fan! A very different experience to what it is at the moment. I was lucky enough to be a season ticket holder at Bolton when they moved to the Reebok Stadium. It is hard to believe some of the players that wore the Bolton shirt during those years, During this article, I will be looking into some of the shock results and some of the major signings that the Wanderers managed to pull off in this period.
Bolton was promoted back to the Premier League in 2001. The 01/02 season started in a way unimaginable to Bolton fans, three wins in a row, including an impressive 5-0 win away at Leicester on the season’s opening day. However, this rich vein of form took a dramatic downfall and by the end of the season, the Trotters were only 4 points above relegation. Halfway through the season, the manager, Sam Allardyce, managed to pull off an unbelievable signing to give the team a much-needed boost. The streets of Bolton welcomed World Cup Winner Youri Djorkaeff for three glorious seasons. Youri played 75 games for Bolton, scoring twenty goals in the process, whilst bringing heaps of flair to a team that were known as a long ball specialist outfit.Embed from Getty Images
The 2002 season also had Bolton fans holding their collective breath. This was another season of struggle. The high point of the campaign was the Wanderers managing to gain an impressive victory against their bitter local rivals, Manchester United, for the second consecutive year. While the overall results were not what fans were hoping, some other out of this world signings were made. Almost unbelievably, Ivan Campo joined the team on loan from Real Madrid for this campaign. The former Champions League winner swapped the Spanish sunshine for the cold, wet pitches of North West England. His experience helped sure up the defence and gave great flair when moving the ball forward. His influence was evident when watching each game as he ended up appearing in 30 games in his first season in England.
The second big signing was maybe the most inspired deal of the Sam Allardyce era. He was so good they named him twice, Nigerian international Jay-Jay Okocha. Okocha was another free signing, coming from Paris Saint-Germain. His seven goals helped keep Bolton in the Premier League. His most impressive strike of the season was his goal of the season contender against West Ham united. The skilful Nigerian covered the whole length of the pitch before finding the back of the net.
The 2003/2004 season was a real game-changer for the Bolton faithful. The older generation of fans had seen many great players wear the famous white jersey, including the likes of Nat Lofthouse, but this was the season that really felt like Bolton, a founding team of the English first division, were going to win, and win well
More international players were drawn to Bolton, including Danish striker Henrik Pederson, who played his majority of games for Bolton as a left-back and Greek international midfielder Stelios Giannakopoulos. Both were significant influences on the team that included young, up and coming midfielder Kevin Nolan and the big bruising striker Kevin Davies. For the first time in years, the Bolton team had a sense of attacking ambition. If their talent was partnered with a continuity in the line-up each week, an exciting season was potentially ahead.
Keeping that consistency in the starting 11 was important, and this was helped immensely by Ivan Campo choosing to sign permanently with the Wanderers. Rumours are he preferred living in Bolton to Spain…. Campo appeared in 37 of the 38 Premier League games and played his heart out in each of those games. The wild-haired Spaniard even scored what seemed to be a 40 yarder against Tottenham towards the end of the season.
The season started somewhat surprisingly poorly. After the first four games, Bolton was sitting in the relegation zone, a familiar feeling for the fans.
Then the momentum started to shift. A five-game unbeaten run, followed quickly by another four-games without a loss, pushed the team up into the table’s top half. Allardyce’s men ended the season strongly, winning five out of six games and ascended to the dizzying heights of eighth. This portion of the campaign truly showed how all of the new signings had become a cohesive unit. Each player of the team contributed in this winning run. Kevin Davies found form when it mattered. He scored three goals in four games, including two winning goals against Wolverhampton Wanderers and Southampton. During the entire campaign, Kevin Davies tallied nine goals. The striker’s hot end to the season helped propel the Trotters up the table, but he was not the only Kevin that was scoring important goals.
Kevin Nolan had been a threat all season, ending the year as Bolton’s top league scorer with ten goals. None were more important than his strikes against Southampton and netting the fourth goal against Leeds United, truly putting that game to bed.
Another key contributor during the run-in was Djorkaeff. In his second season with the team, the Frenchman showed what a difference-maker he could be, scoring four goals in the last two wins of the season.
Whilst this league form was exciting, it was nothing compared to Bolton’s wonderful cup run. This team experienced some huge results in the Carling Cup, beating Liverpool 3-2 in the fourth round. They followed this with great wins against Southampton and a thrilling 5-4 aggregate victory over Aston Villa in the Semi-Final. This set up a final at the Millennium Stadium against Middlesbrough. Unfortunately, Bolton lost 2-1 on the day after a very close game. I was lucky enough to travel down to Cardiff as a 12-year-old. It was raining, the roof was closed, and the stadium’s electric atmosphere was so exciting to me. The game did not go Bolton’s way, but the team’s improvement and ambition was so thrilling to watch.
The following season would see the team try and improve on a very eventful and successful year. Could they reach another final? Could they improve on 8th position in the league?
Their cup appearances were not quite as fruitful this time around, only making it to the 6th round in the FA cup and the 4th round in the League cup. While it was disappointing that the Trotters could not embark on another long cup-run, they could at least focus on the league.
How did Bolton plan on somehow improving their league position? Simple, sign some more legendary figures for very little money.
The first was another midfielder with a national reputation, the late great Gary Speed. Speed was signed from Newcastle United for a mere £750,000. The Welsh international added even more leadership in the middle of the field as he became the first-ever player to register 500 premier league appearances.
Speaking of leadership and bringing experience into the club, another player was added that could somehow trump Speed in those categories. After playing 439 times for Real Madrid, the Los Blancos icon Fernando Hierro walked onto the Reebok stadium turf. I remember sitting in my seat in the upper west stand after hearing rumours of who we may have been signing, and there he appeared carrying a Bolton Scarf into the centre circle. He joined his former Madrid teammate Ivan Campo for one final season of a truly remarkable career.
There was a promising start to the season, earning 24 points from 14 games. This allowed Bolton to sit happily in 7th place in the league. Then, the momentum shifted. Allardyce’s men did not win a single game in the months of November or December. This led to them entering the new year in a lowly 14th position. The fans were certainly unhappy. To end the year on an even lower note, they were beaten by their local rivals Blackburn Rovers 1-0 on the last game of the calendar year.
Upon entering the new year, something clicked within the team. After not managing to win a single game in two months, the Whites went on an unbeaten run of 10 games in all competitions, winning 8 of these. Convincing wins against Arsenal and Tottenham gave the whole team belief, which led to the team finishing on 58 points in 6th place. The Trotters only just failed to secure Champions League qualification, missing out on goal difference to Liverpool.
Despite this, Bolton Wanderers still qualified for a European competition next season, which was a huge achievement for a side fighting relegation a couple of seasons prior. Next year, they had the chance to conquer the UEFA cup.Embed from Getty Images
Another season, another couple of exciting signings. It seemed to be the Big Sam motto, sign influential players coming to the end of their careers, and getting one or two more seasons out of them. This attitude made it so exciting to be a fan. I remember watching the 2002 World cup and loving the Japan national side playing in their home World cup. I joked to my Dad about Bolton possibly signing one of my favourite players to watch, Hidetoshi Nakata. All I had to do was wait three years before that became a reality!! Nakata played his final season in his career at the Reebok Stadium. The Japanese superstar played 21 times during his loan spell netting one goal against West Bromwich Albion.
The extra firepower helped Bolton remain a more consistent outfit than in previous seasons. They once again experienced an unbeaten month, this time in September where they won four out of the five games played. This included their first-ever UEFA cup ties against Bulgarian side Lokomotiv Plovdiv.
At the end of the season, Bolton ended the year on 56 points, just two points less than the previous year. This unfortunately was not enough to remain in the European positions, finishing seven points behind their local rivals Blackburn. However, they did taste a little bit of success in Europe, even though they were European rookies. The team managed to qualify from Group H to face Marseille in the round of 32.
Another joyous season for Bolton and building a solid foundation for the side to try and push further up the Premier League table.
This season did not have any European competition for the Wanderers. It also did not particularly feature the same theme as previous seasons where older veterans were signed for the bare minimum in transfer fees. This season was different. Bolton wanted to win more and to do that they needed to score more. This led them to break their transfer record of £8million on Nicolas Anelka. The former Arsenal and Liverpool star was just what the team needed. Anelka was instantly their top scorer, netting some extraordinary goals, including a fantastic brace against the Gunners.
This was the Wanderers best season under Big Sam, never dropping below 7th position all season, and quite often sat in 2nd and 3rd place. It was a crazy season to witness, the results were positive, the football the team was playing was great to watch, although, it was the beginning of some turbulent times at the Reebok. Sam Allardyce was thrilled with the ability so sign Anelka and wanted to have further cash to bring in more talent to push the team up the table. The Chairman of the club, Phil Gartside, thought otherwise. This ended up being such a large issue that Sam Allardyce resigned with three games left in the season, leaving the club sitting in 6th position.
Sammy Lee was the Assistant Manager at the time, taking charge of the club for the final three games. The Wanderers were unable to secure a victory and dropped to 7th position. Thankfully, this was enough to secure European football for the following season. Bolton Wanderers were once again going to play in the UEFA Cup. This achievement was so exciting for all of the club fans. They had made it back to Europe, with the chance to play some of the world’s biggest clubs. However, little did we know, this was the beginning of the end of Bolton being a highly competitive club.
European competition was secured, Sammy Lee was in charge and fans were expecting more of the same kind of football that had kept Bolton in the top half of the Premier League for the last few seasons. Ten games into the season, the unimaginable had happened. Bolton was sitting rock bottom of the Premiership, only managing to muster one win out of those games. After this poor stretch of form, Gary Megson was hired to try and save the Wanderers season.
As with previous campaigns, Bolton did try and sign some players to help them remain in the Premier League. One of the better signings was English centre half Gary Cahill from Aston Villa. Another great addition to the defence was Icelandic right back Gretar Steinsson. Together the new boys helped secure the struggling defence, whilst also scoring some wonder goals when they ventured forward.
The additions however did not cover their losses. Nicolas Anelka was sold to Chelsea, Gary Speed left to go to Sheffield United and three starting defenders also left on free transfers to other clubs. This led to the team spiralling in the league. Thankfully Bolton managed to win a few games later in the season which led to them finishing one point above the relegation zone.
The league form was disappointing. However, what happened in the UEFA cup was unbelievable. In the first qualification round, they beat FC Rabotnicki over two legs. This placed them in Group F along with Bayern Munich, Braga, Aris and Red Star Belgrade. Bolton was written off. There was no way a club struggling so much in English football could keep up with some of these teams right? Well, Bolton finished undefeated, becoming the first English team to beat Red Star in Belgrade, drawing with Aris and Braga respectively, before amazingly recording a 2-2 draw against Bayern in Munich. This was a miracle result which meant Bolton qualified into the round of 32.
They were drawn against Atletico Madrid, the Spanish powerhouses. No English club had ever come close to knocking them out of a European competition before so Bolton had no chance right? Wrong! Bolton secured a 1-0 win at home with an El-Hadj Diouf winner and then held them to a 0-0 draw in Madrid to knock them out of the cup. Unfortunately in the round of 16, Bolton was knocked out 2-1 on aggregate against Sporting Lisbon.
The season was the start of the end of Bolton’s premier league journey. But the joy that was felt in the stadium and the local bars when watching our small-town team getting results in Munich and Madrid was a feeling you cannot explain.
Bolton continued to finish around 12th-14th position in the following few seasons, never quite returning to the form that got them into Europe. After 11 straight seasons in the Premier League Bolton were relegated to the Championship. They have never recovered from this and now sit in League 2 after experiencing many money troubles and facing administration for years. Bolton has fans from all around the world, and I know that they are hoping that one day they can return to the heights of playing meaningful football in Munich and Madrid.