Play Up Bolton, Bolton Play Up
In late October this website asked, Why no praise for West Brom? West Brom then promptly went on to win one more point in the following games. It is with that lesson that I must apologise to any Bolton fans if their team suddenly goes on a slide but it cannot go without saying any longer. Bolton Wanderers have been wonderful, this season has been superb for the Trotters and yet I haven’t seen many articles extolling their virtues, of which there are many.
It is now late November and after a demolition of Newcastle United, Bolton occupy 5th place in the Premier League. They are ahead of Spurs on goal difference and a world away from being in the relegation zone as they were last season. Not only that they are playing exciting football under a manager whom the chairman and – crucially – the fans have great faith. With a push towards Europe and a team full of exciting young players and wily veterans, Bolton fans can expect to see this form continue, unless the curse of EPLtalk sets in.
Where has it all gone right?
The revolution began in January of this year as Owen Coyle was appointed from – then – Premier League new-boys Burnley. Burnley had been playing good football but hadn’t won a game for months; they did have creditable draws over Arsenal, Man City and a win over Manchester United early in the season. Coyle took over from Gary Megson, who had become a deeply unpopular figure at the Reebok due to his unsuccessful and unattractive football, two factors which often will spell the end for a manager. Coyle had left as he considered Bolton a team better suited to ‘top flight football’. This was at a time when Bolton were at the same level as Burnley in the league and gate attendances were dropping at The Reebok.
Since the change in management Bolton have been on an upward swing, having avoided relegation last season Bolton entered this season with modest expectations. Coyle has gotten the best out of his players and tailored his tactics to suit that. It has been shown before this season that a 4-4-2 can be effective if applied correctly and pressure is maintained on the opposing side, you need only look at Sunderland’s win over Chelsea and Newcastle’s win over Arsenal to show this. Coyle has played this way with two ‘normal’ wingers. Along with this has been the willingness to go direct if the play calls for it as Kevin Davies and Johan Elmander have proven themselves capable in the air and in bringing each other into play.
Speaking of Elmander, this is the biggest positive for Coyle since his appointment. The startling thing about Bolton’s turnaround has been that it has been done with effectively the same team that he was left with. Elmander was a punch line when Coyle took over as the mis-firing Swede was lambasted for his poor scoring tally and record transfer fee. Whilst he didn’t start scoring straight away there has been a marked improvement in both the quality and quantity of his goals and he is finally showing the moves of a £10 million player. The same applies to Kevin Davies, who could charitably have been described as ‘one-dimensional’ under Gary Megson, Davies has added nuances to his performances which led to an England cap and a small degree of consternation when he was left out of the England squad more recently. Another exciting player already on the Bolton books was the young Korean Chung-Yong Lee, a tricky winger with a great cross I was surprised to hear James Richardson (of the Guardian podcast) question his ability. I thought it was clear to see that the Korean was a very-good Premier League winner and I contested he would make a valuable addition to a team in need of good wingers such as Liverpool.
With this kind of quality at the club I actually find myself in the position of wondering whether Gary Megson was really all that bad for Bolton, he certainly had an eye for a player. He signed Tamir Cohen, Gretar Steinsson, Matty Taylor, Gary Cahill, Fabrice Muamba, Mark Davies and the two signings mentioned above. These are all quality players with Davies, Muamba and Cahill all still relatively young. It is damning though that under another manager these players have performed better and achieved better in such a short space of time. Perhaps scouting is more appropriate to a man of Megson’s ability.
That is not to say though that Coyle has not been as prevalent in the transfer market. Having not spent more than a rumoured £1.5m on an ex-Real Madrid youngster Coyle has added to this team very well. The loan signings of Vladimir Weiss and Jack Wilshere showed the faith he had in quality youth and showed the ambition with which he wanted to play. Since then he has also brought in Robbie Blake and Martin Petrov who have the experience needed to enhance the youth players already at the team (Much like Robert Pires move to Villa). If you have been following Bolton and particularly if you are American you will have noticed one name conspicuously absent. That is because the best of Coyle’s signings and one done for nothing has been Stuart Holden, the Scottish-American midfielder has been key for both Club and Country and one major injury aside has been ever present in Bolton’s team. A dynamic young player he only has one element missing from his game and that is the lack of goals, however if he continues to play the way he has been that will be easily forgiven.
All of the above has been a great positive for Bolton fans who – since their promotion – have become accustomed to the Premier League and even the odd foray in Europe do still have some serious problems beyond the pitch. Coyle has operated well on his budget given that he has had very little money to spend as recent financial results have shown the club in £90m of debt (Which was up 30m from the year previous) puts the club on precarious financial footing. There may have to be sales in order to prop up the balance sheet but a reduction in the quality of the players on show would be a negative sign towards fans as they currently occupy a European place. Also the problem with their record signing taking so long to find his level is that as he has surged into form his contract is on it’s last legs and if no deal is agreed before January he could leave on a Bosman, though the club could sell him at a reduced cost to prevent that (see the story of Nigel De Jong’s transfer).
With that Bolton are at a fork in the road, do they secure their future by losing their best players and hope to unearth a few more gems? Or do they hold on to their best players and risk putting the club in Jeopardy for the hope of a financial windfall from Europe and a high-table place? We will soon see but for the meantime I will continue to watch Owen Coyle’s Bolton play football because, unless you are a fan of the opposing team, it is a joy to behold.