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'My perfect match' - Farrelly remembers Wanderers' play-off win 20 years ago

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse

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It was a result that netted Wanderers a guaranteed £30million in prize money and a performance that left the great Nat Lofthouse weeping tears of joy – but Wanderers’ play-off triumph against Preston North End 20 years ago came with no bells and whistles.

Sam Allardyce’s side has not been fancied to follow Jean Tigana’s swaggering Fulham nor Graeme Souness’s rebuilt Blackburn Rovers into the Premier League.

An ensemble cast of 35 different players had been used throughout the season after the squad was shorn of some big stars the previous summer.

But fuelled by previous years’ play-off near-misses and the fact most neutrals were rooting for David Moyes’ men to make their bow in the top-flight, it all came together on one glorious day in Cardiff.

For Gareth Farrelly, who had been Allardyce’s first signing when he joined the club two years earlier, it proved to be the “perfect game”.

Not only did the oft-under-valued Irishman score the opening goal and provide the second for Michael Ricketts late on, before Ricardo Gardner rounded things off in stoppage time, he also produced arguably the finest performance in the five years he spent with Bolton.

“These days people are having open top bus tours when they win the play-off final but my reality was different,” he told The Bolton News. “I had a picture in my mind that I just wanted to play the perfect match.

“That was one of the days where the game played out pretty much as I wanted it to. We dominated the game, I played well, contributed with a goal and an assist and I remember my plan on the day had been to eviscerate my opposition on the day, and I did.

“Man of the match was given to someone else. I got it in the Bolton Evening News, which I was happy with, but after that I went home. There was no get-together, we just drove home in our own cars.”

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It had been a difficult few years for Bolton away from Burnden Park as relegation in 1997 and rising costs at the new stadium placed new pressures on Bolton to return to the top table.

Farrelly had actually scored the goal to save Everton at Wanderers’ expense – so had taken some time in ingratiate himself to the Reebok faithful. But by the time the play-off final came around, most had come to appreciate his hard work in the middle of the park.

“I look back and that was a big season for me, I played a lot of football,” he said. “There were always issues, rightly or wrongly, that I’d been the one who scored the goal which got Bolton relegated.

“I’d played in the first game at the Reebok as well when Terry Phelan cleared a ball which was over the line. Believe me, I get told the stories even now.

“But for me, I wanted to play football, I didn’t want to be sat in the stands. And in that season for Bolton I probably played the most I had in my whole career. They were some of my happiest times.

“I had great relationships with people in the club, within the team, it was a really good year for me.”

Farrelly recalls there had been a focus within the squad in the build-up to the game which gave a positive mood within the camp.

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“We laugh about things, and it’s 20 years ago now which is just crazy, but I seem to remember we were confident we’d win the game if we performed,” he said.

“We’d beaten Preston comfortably during the season and it was almost expected within the group, not in an arrogant way, but if we played to our capability, we felt we would win.”

That confidence had not necessarily been shared by the fans at the start of the season when key men in Allardyce’s squad had been sold on to balance the books in the aftermath of that infamous play-off semi-final defeat at Ipswich Town.

“Everyone will have their own memory of it, but I think when you see the players who left at the start of that season – Eidur Gudjohnsen, Claus Jensen, Mark Fish – there just wasn’t the expectation immediately,” Farrelly said.

“I think there had been some good recruitment, Michael Ricketts, a few different ones on loan.

“We’d drawn the first game against Burnley 1-1 and I think there was a momentum that was built up over the course of the whole season, a reminder there were still some good players there.

“The division was quite funny because there were two exceptional teams at the time in Fulham, under Jean Tigana, and Blackburn, under Graeme Souness, so as it went on we began to challenge them. When we’d finished third we looked at ourselves and thought ‘we should be promoted’ – it was a natural confidence.”

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Farrelly opened the scoring after 15 minutes and it was not until the closing stages that Ricketts and Gardner added the distance between the two sides that reflected the superiority Bolton had enjoyed.

“We were dominant,” he said. “Matt Clarke – who was a friend of mine – made one very good save from David Healy but I think that was it.

“Matt had been incredible on loan after Jussi did his cruciate.

“On the day, players like Ricardo Gardner were exceptional. You can go right the way through the team, some of the lads who came in like Anthony Barness, Simon Charlton, Bo Hansen, Gudni Bergsson, Kevin Nolan broke through, Ian Marshall played a massive part, Dean Holdsworth contributed. People talk about systems but we had players who could adapt.

“All the external stuff has been built up. They said a third-placed team had never been promoted but we put that one to bed. Then as soon as we went up they said we were going straight back down again. Those sort of things galvanise a group, you want to knock them over as and when they were raised.”

Lofthouse had spoken to the players before the game – and though Farrelly cannot recall what was said, he reckons the mere presence of the Lion of Vienna was enough to inspire.

“I remember Nat being there and seeing him afterwards,” he said. “You can’t help but be hugely respectful of his career and what a lovely man he was.

“History is relative. But when you look at someone with the standing he had and you come into a club, it makes you realise exactly what you have walked into. I think it is really, really important.

“Nat was rightly revered but he deserved it because of how he carried himself.”

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After the final, Farrelly never quite recaptured the same groove at Bolton and would eventually leave the club after a few loan spells amid disagreements with Allardyce.

But he remains proud of the job he did to get Bolton back into the big time, where they would remain for more than a decade.

“I look back and I may have done things differently,” he said. “Older Gareth might have given some advice to younger Gareth.

“But the reality was that when I came back for pre-season a lot of the support structure I’d had around me had gone and I ended up getting injured on the first day of pre-season and I missed the first game at Leicester.

“I played catch-up after that. Everyone always has fabulous football stories but there is always a counter side to them.

“I missed the awesome game at Filbert Street, sat in the stand, then Middlesbrough 1-0, Michael Ricketts scored, and then I was only fit to be sub at Liverpool, we won 1-0, and then we drew at Leeds.

“We’d gone from a Bolton mob that were going to be relegated by Christmas to top of the Premier League.”

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