Another FA Cup weekend has passed, bringing with it a traditional and welcome break from the recent splurge of festive Premier League fixtures. Most teams in the division have played 21 games so, with half the season gone, now would seem like a natural time to assess the performance of one of the campaign’s biggest success stories – Bolton Wanderers.
A decade ago, the Trotters were playing a pretty passing game and competing for promotion from what was then Division One. What followed was - and remains - a period of sustained presence in the top flight. Now, as we enter a new decade, Bolton are once again playing pretty football but, on this occasion, they are attempting to provide a platform to sustain a European presence beyond two seasons.
The classic cliché is that the Premier League is a marathon, not a sprint. Having earned hard fought draws against the likes of Manchester United and Everton, Bolton have shown the endurance required. Whilst inflicting heavy defeats upon Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham and Newcastle United reveals a sprinter’s mentality, Owen Coyle’s side are maintaining a healthy pace and sit 7th in a congested league. European football appears a very realistic target.
It is certainly a great priority for Swedish striker Johan Elmander, the club’s top goal-scorer. The player has enjoyed a surprisingly fruitful start to the season and was the league’s second top scorer by late November. During his purple patch it emerged he was not willing to sign a new contract with Bolton and it was suggested that he would be sold in the January transfer window to help pay part of the clubs purported £90 million debt. In early December, reports surfaced that Liverpool and Spurs were ready to swoop and sign him for free at the end of the season.
El Man has come good
However, at 29 years of age Elmander would prove a risky purchase in the winter window. Despite having almost a 1:3 goals to game ratio at Brondby and Tolouse – his former clubs – he is yet to show any real consistency at Premier League level. The high fee Bolton will doubtless charge for his services would also put off potential suitors in January. If he is to leave, it will not be until the summer, as his absence would hurt Bolton’s European ambitions. However, it isn’t farfetched to imagine that the charismatic Coyle could persuade him to remain, especially if they finish in the top six.
The Coyle factor
Lesser managers would have done away with Bolton’s physicality altogether, and perhaps encouraged football akin to Barcelona and Arsenal in an attempt to energise the supporters. However, Coyle is smart; the set piece danger which Bolton has always posed remains an integral part of their game. Now the width of the pitch is being utilised, the passing ability of their midfielders is no longer overlooked and confidence is sky high. As a result, Bolton are now scoring an average of two goals a game at home; entertainment is almost guaranteed.
Phil Gartside – the Bolton chairman – would hope the club can match their managers’ ambitions, else one could imagine the Scot sitting in the Reebok’s away dugout before long. But in the meantime, we should put such thoughts aside, and simply revel in the renaissance of Bolton Wanderers.