From Big Sam’s European adventure, the fabulous fifties and Ian Greaves Rock n Roll Wanderers to Bruce Rioch’s White Hot side and the team which bid farewell to Burnden in the most spectacular way possible, we’ll lay out the evidence.
And on Sunday we’ll be putting it to a grand vote.
Today, the 1996/97 title-winning season under Colin Todd.
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THERE was simply no better way to say goodbye to Burnden Park than the 1996/97 season.
The club’s future lay in a brand-new stadium being built up in Horwich but for most, its soul remains anchored on Manchester Road.
Wanderers’ solitary season in the Premier League had been a largely unhappy one – a failed managerial experiment, a lack of firepower, some demoralising defeats. So with just nine months left to make amends to their spiritual home, the parting gesture had to be a strong one. And my word, so it was.
By the time tears were shed on April 25, 1997, and Charlton defeated 4-1, Colin Todd’s side had quite simply torn Division One to shreds.
John McGinlay fittingly scored the final goal, one of two for him on the day, Alan Thompson and Gerry Taggart also getting their slice of history.
But the journey – from an uncertain summer of change to popping Champagne corks and toasting a return to the elite – was one that any fan lucky enough to experience it will take to the grave.
It all started on a summer’s day at Port Vale, where talk on the terraces was of the imminent departure of cult hero Sasa Curcic.
His sale to Aston Villa was seen by some as a ruinous move, the Serbian having provided the precious few bright moments in a largely disastrous year in the top-flight.
Todd had also been forced to sell Alan Stubbs to Celtic to balance the books but invested sensibly in a couple of Danish players who would prove absolute masterstrokes – Per Frandsen and Michael Johansen – and solid defender Neil Cox, a £1.5million capture from Villa.
It was the impending exit of Curcic that really had tongues wagging, though, as striker Blake recalled.
“I think I remember reading Gordon Sharrock in the Bolton Evening News saying by selling Sasa we’d thrown away our best chance of promotion,” he laughed. “You journalists do make me laugh, sometimes.”
Todd had given his players no luxuries in pre-season, determined to make them as physically prepared as they could be for a 46-game campaign. He also insisted on players eating together in midweek.
So on the hard miles spent jogging around Jumbles, or the dinner table at Tiggis, partnerships were forged, not least the strike pairing who would share 54 goals between them in all competitions that season.
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“I didn’t really know McGinlay,” Blake said. “Toddy forced us together and it was like the odd couple. He was a right messy so-and-so and I was quite neat. But it ended up being like a brotherly thing.
“On the pitch, we didn’t need to work on anything. We didn’t spend hours on the training ground or anything like that – it was just natural.”
Blast-off was achieved with a 1-0 win at home to Manchester City. Frandsen endeared himself instantly to the midweek crowd with a smart finish and the following Saturday Johansen followed suit, adding to Blake’s brace in a 3-1 win against Norwich City.
Blues from the previous campaign were being gradually brushed away but there was one sobering note as Wanderers conspired to ship five goals at Southend.
Todd’s side bounced back in emphatic fashion, hitting Grimsby for six, and would not lose another game until mid-November.
While the FA Cup proved relatively uneventful, the League Cup was a different story.
After Chelsea were knocked out in round three at Burnden, Tottenham were obliterated – McGinlay scoring a hat-trick in an incredible 6-1 victory. Sadly, the party poopers at Wimbledon prevented Todd’s side from going any further.
Wanderers racked up six wins on the trot from Boxing Day onward, including a match that took on a legendary status of its own.
Bolton and Wolves had a rivalry which extended all the way back to the fifties when tussles with Stan Cullis’s magnificent side were always the best show in town. But things had taken a darker turn in the play-off semi-finals of 1995 when an altercation between McGinlay and David Kelly – later brushed off by the Scot as a “wee push” – was not punished by the referee.
McGinlay revelled in the bad blood, nipping out of the team warm-up before kick-off to give the travelling supporters a little wave. A powder keg of a game needed little ignition. And within a few minutes all hell had broken loose.
Home fans appealed for a penalty when Blake was brought down by Dean Richards. John Sheridan appealed to ref David Allison but was pulled back by Mark Venus – and all of a sudden, punches were flying in all directions.
Memorably, Bryan Small was the only player who didn’t get involved in the melee, the full-back happily doing kick-ups on the half-way line as angry players were pulled apart.
The official admitted he could not make head nor tail of who was to blame.
“I am not going to report it. What can I say? I just didn’t see what happened,” he said after the final whistle. “I just called the two captains together and told them it was a situation for common sense.’’ Poor Lofty the Lion ended up in trouble, though, after dancing in front of the Wolves fans at half time he was splattered by a meat pie thrown from the stands. The Football Association took a dim view and charged the poor mascot.
Todd proclaimed after the final whistle that his team could fight or play their way to promotion. And so it proved.
Though beaten by Reading on February 8, Wanderers remained undefeated for the rest of the season, closing in on an emotional farewell to their grand old stadium in the finest form possible.
The title was wrapped up with four games to go. Mixu Paatelainen and Scott Sellars scored in a 2-1 victory against Manchester City at Maine Road, completing the double.
It is in the numbers that the 1996/97 season truly stands out.
Wanderers failed to score in just two of their 46 games in Division One – and lost neither of those games. Credit to Oxford United and Oldham Athletic for being the only teams to shut them out.
But the number of records which fell in a single campaign was truly remarkable. Bolton set a new benchmark for most wins in a season (28), most home wins (18), fewest defeats in a season (four), fewest away defeats (three), most goals scored in a season (100), most goals scored away from home (40) and most points in a season (98).
And yet people will always remember the one record they didn’t get.
After saying goodbye to Burnden there was one thing left to do: Become the first English side to score 100 goals and pass 100 points. And that could only be done with a victory against another old foe, Tranmere.
It so nearly happened, too. McGinlay – of course – and Jamie Pollock had put the team 2-1 up going into injury time but a Lee Jones equaliser deep into injury time put the very slightest of downers on what was a celebratory party.
"It's been a superb season and all our supporters have got to be proud of what we have done,” Todd reflected after the game.
"When we kicked off against Port Vale last August our aim was to get out of this division. The first target was promotion and we achieved that. Next we wanted the Championship and we did that with four games to go.
"The effort the players have put in since then has been magnificent and there isn't a single supporter who can have a go at us for that.
"The fact that we didn't manage to get the 100 points we wanted was never going to spoil the party. I know there was disappointment but we've achieved too much this season for anyone to go away downhearted."
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