It had been some time since Sam Allardyce held court in the Bolton Wanderers media suite, far too long, in fact.
The drive up to the stadium had brought back a flood of fond memories, and some of the faces waiting behind its doors were familiar, if a little aged by time.
Allardyce had been back as an opposition manager with former clubs Newcastle United, Blackburn Rovers and Crystal Palace and left the last time clutching a bag of Carrs Pasties, but this was the first time since his final press conference on April 26, 2007, where he could really relax and reminisce.
Big Sam will manage a team of Wanderers legends this afternoon (kick off 1pm - get your tickets [You must be registered and logged in to see this link.]) to help raise funds for Motor Neurone Disease research, and specialist treatment for the mother of current full-back, Gethin Jones, who was diagnosed earlier this year.
The game itself is a means to an end. But it does represent a chance for former players, and Allardyce himself, to walk back on to the pitch as heroes.
Since he dropped that bombshell announcement in the aftermath of a 2-2 draw at Chelsea, eight jobs have followed, including that of the England manager.
Big Sam turned into the Premier League’s firefighter but never found the bond he shared with Wanderers.
“This club is everything in football terms, to me,” he said. “I spent most of my life in the town, most of my career here as a player and a manager. And in recent years I have only flipped in and out of jobs, I have never had the affinity for a club that I do for Bolton Wanderers.
“And when you can fulfil a dream, this club giving me an opportunity to play in the first team for eight or nine years in the first spell, a couple of years in the second one, and then manage here for another eight after that, it becomes part of you. I feel emotion for this club, so when you see it going the wrong way it hurts.
“Being back here is a pleasure and an honour for me, and obviously the reaction from the fans, what the players are doing, shows how much all of them appreciated the time they had here.”
Wanderers sit today in a very different league position to the days when Kevin Davies, Jay Jay Okocha and Ivan Campo were lacing up their boots on a regular basis.
The four top-eight finishes in the Premier League, and two European campaigns, paved the way for Bolton to spend more than a decade in the top division – their longest unbroken spell since the early sixties.
The decline, which began with relegation in 2012 but accelerated in recent years with administration and only the club’s second-ever season at League Two level, was hard for Allardyce to watch.
“Deep inside every football club, like any business, it is all about structure and leadership,” he said.
“You can be a leader of the football but the leader of the club also has to be the right person.
“That has been one of the problems, and then after that, there’s finance.
“A business has to be run correctly, which is exactly what we did in my time because money wasn’t just given into the football club to get it into debt, the money I acquired was from the football team, irrespective of what they said at the time. I know I generated all the money I spent through the team being successful and making millions more than they expected year-in, year-out.
“That helped to finish the development of this football club, the hotel, the offices on the far side, the training ground. Once you have done all that you can get a successful football club but we have to work together, and in recent years that has been very difficult here and why it has spiralled down the divisions.”
Nevertheless, Allardyce tips his cap to Ian Evatt and the current ownership, who have got things moving back in the right direction. And counting in their favour, he says, is a stadium which still impresses at nearly 25 years of age.
“The foresight to move here was down to the previous chairman and directors,” he said. “It was an outstanding dream that they made into a reality. Everyone talks about leaving Burnden Park, which is a place I obviously had affinity for, but I wouldn’t have got the players I did to come here if we were still playing at Burnden.
“This is iconic, this stadium. And it has been emulated elsewhere.
“It is also the right size for the football club and when I came in, a couple of years after it was built, this was perfect for the town, perfect for the fans, perfect for the manager because it helped attract world class players along with what we were doing on the pitch.
“We allowed the players to enjoy themselves here. We didn’t have a great training ground to begin with but we certainly had a fantastic one in the end.”
Allardyce is currently out of management but is reluctant to say the word “retired” for fear that he will be tempted to go back on his word.
He turned down a job offer from abroad a fortnight ago – but says he would have considered managing in another country if the right offer had materialised.
“I think there were right times but not the right job,” he said.
“I think had the timing been right, like Steven Gerrard being on top of his game at Rangers, when Aston Villa sacked their manager he was a big candidate straight away.
“So you have to be at the right place at the right time. Abroad never materialised when I felt in the right place.”
The modern-day Wanderers have made great play of their use of sports data, both in recruitment and in performance analysis. But a good decade before football’s technological revolution, Allardyce recalled how the donation of a set of laptops and hours of inputting numbers allowed him to start picking up bargains in the transfer market.
“I had a staff that provided this huge service, and all that manpower had to be put on to computers,” he said.
“Thank God for David Speakman, who was a former director. He donated about 20 laptops from his travel business and we started setting up the technology to start monitoring all the players who came in and those who were here, detailing performances in training and on matchday.
“Directors here gave me the licence to push forward with that and it can be difficult as a manager to quantify spending on that sort of thing. People sit behind the scenes but rarely get any credit. But I have to say, it wasn’t just me, it was that whole team. We called them the family.
“When you are working with top quality professionals, you learn from them. I became a better manager because of their expertise.
“I’d drive them mad sometimes, driving them forward and trying to find the cutting edge. But it ultimately provided a quality training programme that everyone looked forward to turning up every day. It was great credit to them because it made my job so much easier because it meant I could just concentrate on preparing the team to win games.
“Everybody does it nowadays but I used to get a huge amount of stick in 2001 because I had 24, 28, 30 staff. People used to say ‘what does he need all those for?’”
Those in the background may not have been household names – but Allardyce revealed that the players had an unusual way of securing them a summer bonus, linked to the Premier League’s deal with a sports drink.
“Remember the Lucozade chart? We’d always be top of that and the players used to get a big bonus from them, which they would then give to the staff,” he said.
“At the end of the year, Lucozade were well pleased with us because we got more adverts with players drinking bottles of the stuff than anyone else.
“Things like that used to make a big difference. Even people like Russell Byrne-Fraser, the world’s only double-barrelled kitman. He used to sort it out and they all got something to enjoy their summer holidays.”
Allardyce will be ably assisted by a few famous faces in the dugout, including Paddy McGuinness and David Wheater, who are both laid low by injuries.
And Big Sam hopes the Bolton public will turn out in force to make the event a success – but he believes the fact the game is taking place at all shows that things are heading back in the right direction at the club he holds so dear.
“This is a huge commitment from everybody – the club allowing this game to go forward and everybody who has worked behind the scenes to put this game together,” he said. “This is not an easy task by the way, so I was glad I was in Dubai and didn’t have to make too many phone calls, emails, Whatsapp or texts.
“From the players’ point of view, full marks to Kevin Davies and John McGinlay and I’m looking forward to the lads turning up.
“I have got a big squad, it’s going to be a difficult task for me – who to put on, when to take them off and put the next one on, try to get everybody a game for the right amount of time and adjust to their fitness levels.
“I’ll have to have a keen eye and make sure that nobody gets injured, that’s obviously a concern – they will be so excited about playing here.
“And to just enjoy the occasion for the right reasons, for the charity, and hopefully we’ll raise enough money, even more than is expected. That would be fantastic.”
And finally to the real issue. Big Sam had played in a fine Bolton team under Ian Greaves which worked its way into the First Division after a few near misses at the back end of the seventies – but how would they have fared against the team he managed in the Premier League? Would they have won?
“Oh, you dirty devil asking that question! No,” he bellowed, a smile spreading quickly.
“I am doing myself in here but it wouldn’t get anywhere near them.
“I’d have Kevin Davies in my pocket, I love him. It was the Kevin Keegans and the Ian Rush types that I wasn’t so clever with!”
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