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Nat Remembered: Why Lofthouse remains a beacon of hope for Bolton

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse

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A decade since the town lost their favourite son, and more than 50 years since he retired as a footballer there is still no dispute about who was the greatest Wanderer of them all.

On January 15, 2011, Nat Lofthouse’s family confirmed that the famous Lion of Vienna had passed away.

Before kick-off against Stoke that day his beloved club, Bolton Wanderers, sat seventh in the Premier League, above Liverpool, Everton, Newcastle United, Wolves and West Ham.

A generation of new supporters had been treated to some special times in the top-flight, twice qualifying for European competition in a period of success that arguably matched Lofthouse’s pomp in the fifties, or the three FA Cups lifted in the roaring twenties.

With the financial aid of local lad Eddie Davies, Sam Allardyce had lured world class talents to Lancashire to give fans a glimpse of the high life: Nicolas Anelka, Youri Djorkaeff, Jay-Jay Okocha, Fernando Hierro, Ivan Campo.

But as treasured as those big names still are in these parts, they are not ‘Our Nat’. And Lofthouse’s popularity in the town surpassed his considerable achievements on the pitch for club and country.

Matt Clough, author of ‘Lofty’ – a Telegraph Sports Book Award nominated biography of the former England striker – believes Lofthouse’s legend is as strong in the town today as it ever was.

“You don’t need to have been a football fan to know what Nat meant to Bolton,” he told us. “One of the people I interviewed extensively for the book, his partner in later life, Mildred, and she admitted she hadn’t set foot in Burnden Park, had no interest in football whatsoever but even she knew who Nat was, he’d been on the front page of the paper every Saturday for years.

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“He does transcend football, particularly from the nineties onwards when the club was building back up again. He was heavily involved in the initiative to construct the Reebok Stadium, he was involved in one of the World Cup bids.

“Thousands of Bolton fans never saw him play, only in the scant footage we have of him playing, but it doesn’t matter because of what he has come to symbolise.”

In 2005, Bolton Wanderers polled supporters to create a list of their 50 greatest players of all time. Unsurprisingly, Lofthouse topped the poll.

While some of the names on the list have ebbed in and out of fashion, and Allardyce’s Galacticos have added a number of worthy contenders, there is no debate 15 years on about Lofthouse’s position.

“There is a very rational reason for Nat being the number one on any list you were to compile of Bolton Wanderers players in the hearts and minds of Bolton fans. But there is something that transcends him just being a footballer in a given period of history,” he said.

“I was the same. I was born in 1991, which was well past his heyday as a player and he was winding down his duties as president as I was starting to take an interest in the club.

“It is one of those things you just don’t question. Bolton wear white shirts, they play in the North West and Nat Lofthouse is their best player, end of discussion.

“It’s quite heartening because with the younger demographic there may be discussion about Anelka, Gary Cahill, that sort of player – and I’d second them – but the idea of Nat being number one was not in question.

“There are smaller clubs who owe more to one person but I don’t think there is a single one around the size of Bolton Wanderers, the 20 biggest clubs in England, owes so much to one man.”

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Factors in Wanderers’ decline over the past decade would no doubt have angered and disappointed Lofthouse, now immortalised in statue form at the front of the stadium.

But the history books show how he helped rebuild the club in troubled financial times, be it as a manager in the early sixties when the abolition of the minimum wage had changed the football landscape for provincial clubs like Bolton, or in the early eighties when Lofthouse campaigned for supporters to join the new Lifeline Lottery and – quite literally – help keep Wanderers afloat.

“So much has gone on in the 10 years since Nat passed away,” said Clough. “You can hardly believe that back then we were sitting fairly pretty in the Premier League and since then we’ve had disasters on and off the field, albeit thankfully it looks as if it is getting better now and that we are turning back in the right direction.

“So much has gone on since Nat died but there is still such an interest in him. And I am sure on the anniversary itself there will be a lot of attention paid to him.

“I don’t think his legacy could have been enhanced that much. It will certainly be a sad day but also a poignant one because it is a reminder of better times for the club.

“People will be growing ever-fonder of Nat because of what he represented. He steered the club through probably their most famous era.

“He is a beacon of hope now. We have been down in Division Four before and then in the Premier League where we had a fantastic time of it, and Nat saw all of that. You can look at him in those sad times and know we’ll get back up there eventually.”

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse

Might have posted this letter from a fan before, but it still makes me smile.

John Hudson writes: At about the time Nat Lofthouse (obituary, 17 January) was winning the FA Cup for Bolton Wanderers in 1958, he came to the north Manchester suburb where I lived to publicise a new sports shop. When I arrived, there were already hundreds of other kids milling around, but my friend, a year older and wiser, said: "Think about it. Nat lives in Bolton. He'll have to come through Radcliffe. We'll catch him at the Radcliffe bus stop."

It was market day in Radcliffe and the bus was packed with housewives, laden with shopping bags. But there in among them, sure enough, towered the Lion of Vienna, brilliantly Brylcreemed and neat and tidy in his belted-up fawn mac.

There was brief disappointment as he brushed aside the scraps of paper and magazine photos we thrust out to him to sign. "Look lads, I'm a bit late, there'll be plenty of time when we're there," he explained. But we still had the kudos of watching the others boys' excitement as he emerged around the corner, the two of us trotting along close on either side of him, as if we were all the best of mates.

The maximum wage for footballers was lifted in 1961, too late for Nat. Within 10 years, George Best and successive Miss Worlds were flitting around in his E-Type between his boutique, his nightclub and his posh house in Cheshire. But in 1958, the Radcliffe bus was good enough for Nat; and what strikes me most now is our utter certainty that it would be.

Ten Bobsworth

Frank Worthington
Frank Worthington

Factors in Wanderers’ decline over the past decade would no doubt have angered and disappointed Lofthouse, now immortalised in statue form at the front of the stadium.

Iles wouldn't have played the 'Lofty card' in his never-ending anti-Davies, anti-Anderson campaign, would he?

You might think that, I couldn't possibly comment.

It seems to me very possible that Lofty met Eddie Davies for the first time at the 1991 FA Cup
 match in the photo shown of Lofty, with Hoppy (hidden), Doug Holden and Ray Parry (all four England internationals, signed by BWFC for £10 each).

A young Eddie was a guest of the Rags chairman, Sir Roland Smith, at that match when Phil Gartside first tried to see if Eddie would invest in the Wanderers. Smith was an avid collector of chairmanships and later became chairman of Strix with Board Meetings being held at the Reebok.

It was not until 1999 that Eddie invested in the Wanderers although I expect that Strix had a box at the Reebok from when the stadium was opened in 1997.

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