BLAZING sunshine, Elton John, ‘Norpigs’, Trevor Morgan’s forward roll, Phil Brown’s bucket hat and a rare Dean Crombie goal fit to grace any Wembley final… Ladies and gentlemen, the 1989 Sherpa Van Trophy.
Life was pretty tough on the terraces in the eighties.
Hooliganism was rife, stadia not fit for purpose and football was being made a scapegoat for the economic and social problems being faced by the country as a whole.
Burnden Park was no different. Long gone was the long hair and swagger of Frank Worthington and Co – the following decade saw financial issues, dwindling crowds and a drop into the Fourth Division for the first time in the club’s history.
By April 1989 football had hit its lowest ebb with the Hillsborough Disaster but against a backdrop of national mourning, Wanderers – now in the third tier – found themselves with something to celebrate.
Just a few days on from the tragedy, Steve Thompson’s extra-time penalty against Blackpool at Bloomfield Road had booked a place at Wembley in the Sherpa Van Trophy.
Bolton had been there three years earlier in the same competition but found themselves well-bettered by Bristol City [I went to this game as well - Sluffy]. This time, however, 25,000 supporters would return aboard 200 coaches and football specials, triumphant.
“It’s strange,” recalled Phil Brown, Bolton’s captain on the day, “I’ve been managing over in India with Trevor Morgan as my assistant and he sent me a picture the other day of us at Wembley and it brought it all flooding back. You’d never believe it was 30 years ago. I can remember it like it was yesterday.
“At the time I was questioning how we were showing up in the league under Phil Neal because we’d got a bit of glamour in the cup runs but the form week-to-week wasn’t really consistent enough.
“I suppose that didn’t come until Neal left and Bruce Rioch came in. He obviously turned out to be fantastic for the football club. But they were tough times for football in general, it was like a different game to how it is now.”
Standing in Bolton’s way were Fourth Division Torquay United, managed by Cyril Knowles.
The Gulls were underdogs but Neal and Mick Brown had a plan to exploit the big Wembley pitch, as Brown explained.
“I remember staying at the Bellhouse Hotel in Beaconsfield. Back then it was top class – we were in our element. There was swimming pool, sauna, health centre, the works. And back then we knew the fans, a lot of them stayed in the same place and were sat there as we’re eating the pre-match meal.
“We’d trained at Beaconsfield Town FC in the build-up to the game and Phil Neal had identified that if we got the ball in behind the Torquay United full-backs we’d get some joy, so it was up to me and Barry Cowdrill to knock the ball for John Thomas and Trevor Morgan.
“When we were going through it on the training pitch we needed a couple of extra bodies to pose as the Torquay defenders, so we roped in Phil Gartside and Brett Warburton.
“I can still see them standing there in their shorts – Phil went to try and head the ball and ended up falling over, it was hilarious, but I suppose they played a part because the plan worked.”
Wanderers walked out on to the famed Wembley turf to be greeted by Elton John, then Watford’s chairman.
It became quickly apparent to Brown that the team would also be battling the temperature.
“The weather was boiling,” he said. “I think it was 92 degrees pitch-side and during the course of the game I managed to lose six-and-a-half kilos.
“Back then I was a full-back who liked to get up and down the pitch but it was hard in that heat. The pitch felt absolutely massive.”
Torquay took the lead through Dean Edwards but Julian Darby – one of the unsung heroes of Neal’s side at the time – swivelled to equalise within five minutes.
The game ambled on and Torquay hit the woodwork in the second half before Wanderers got a stroke of luck which swung affairs in their favour.
“I remember Jeff Chandler putting us in front (his shot went down as a Steve Morrison own goal) and him setting off jumping over the advertising hoardings and getting in among the supporters – I’d never seen him move so fast,” said Brown.
As Torquay chased, the gaps that Neal had predicted began to appear.
Wanderers’ fans had brought their own line of inflatables for the Sherpa Van Trophy run. And though many of the ‘Norpigs’ – so-called to tie in with the superstore which now adorned the side of Burnden – had failed to survive the semi-final at Blackpool, some were still being held aloft in celebration as the team began to take hold of the game.
They were never waved more wildly than for the third goal, a length-of-the-field effort from the normally reserved Dean Crombie.
For Crombie, who would be voted Bolton’s player of the year that season, it was a moment which defined his playing career.
“I’ve recalled it once or twice,” he told The Bolton News “But Peter Nicholson tells it better than I do. I think I won the ball back in my 18-yard box and I just carried on running – which was a bit novel back then because they didn’t want to break that far down the pitch.
“Jeff Chandler and John Thomas were involved and then all of a sudden I was bearing in on goal. I was thinking ‘what am I going to do now?’
“I didn’t get much time to think about it, and it was one of those surreal moments watching it bounce into the net. It is the moment that people remember me for, and I like that fans still talk about it, not in a big-headed kind of way because it almost takes away from everything else I did in my playing career, but to be there and share it all with the players and half the town; it was a very special moment.”
Torquay deflated, like so many Norpigs, a fourth goal did arrive. ‘Exocet’ Stuart Storer had been sent on to exploit more space on the right, and the winger pulled back a cross for Morgan to slot home.
It was actually the first goal scored by a Bolton striker in the whole cup run – and was celebrated with a forward somersault of limited gymnastic merit.
Goalkeeper David Felgate recalls the noise as the final whistle sounded.
“I sat on the floor afterwards trying to let it all sink in and was trying to find my family and enjoy it with them,” he said. “I was drained but you forgot your tiredness to sprint up the stairs to get your winner’s medal.
“Then it was celebrations in front of something like 25,000 Wanderers fans before heading back to the dressing rooms and those big old baths.
“The fans were special that day, and during my whole time at Bolton, because they travelled in big numbers everywhere.
“To win a cup for them was fantastic because they really were like an extra man for us in games.”
Brown went up to lift the trophy, taking it from the ‘Rocket Man’ himself – but not before grabbing a hat on his way up to the royal box.
It seemed at the time football had little to celebrate. For Neal, a man with distinct Liverpool connections, the occasion was somewhat bittersweet.
“I remember vividly where I was when I heard what had happened at Hillsborough, managing Bolton at Fulham, and the news hit me like a gunshot,” he told The Bolton News.
“I’d already been through Heysel as a player and it brought back a lot of emotions which probably played on my mind because such a big part of my life had been at Liverpool.
“I never saw it as a success for myself at the time – although looking back now I regard it just as fondly as anything I did with Liverpool. It was the people who had been there with me, the backroom, who had been so strong when things really were bad.
“And I can still see Lofty (Nat Lofthouse) smiling at the fact we were lifting a trophy again all those years after he had been heading them in.”
Just three years later the Premier League era began, the Taylor Report demanded better safety measures and the removal of metal fences and the introduction of all-seater stadia at the highest level, Wembley included. It suddenly became fashionable to watch the game again.
For Bolton too, revolution was in the air. Neal’s team would evolve and eventually be taken on by Bruce Rioch. The results were White Hot.
“That game started something bigger,” Brown said. “I arrived as a player in the late eighties and had a couple of years away at Blackpool but by the time I was back as a coach and left in 2005 we were in the Premier League and Europe.
“You’d never have imagined those sort of days when we were knocking around in the old Third Division but that Wembley trip got us buzzing again.”
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Last edited by Sluffy on Tue May 28 2019, 13:31; edited 1 time in total