“There's two things which happen to football managers: you do well and you move on or you don't and you're moved on.”
Owen Coyle’s first words at Bolton Wanderers proved more prophetic than he might have thought at the time.
The former Burnden Park striker, one of the heroes of the play-off final victory against Reading in 1995, Coyle was greeted with open arms by folk at Bolton by virtue of the fact he was not universally unpopular Bolton boss, Gary Megson.
On the face of it he was everything the erstwhile Ginger Mourinho was not: media friendly, fond of attacking, dynamic football and ready to invest in a club at which he has spent some happy times as a player under Bruce Rioch.
Of course, his exit from Burnley had caused a stink. As the story goes, he walked out of Turf Moor in tears, upset at leaving a club he had taken into the Premier League a season earlier.
Clarets chairman Barry Kilby said it was a “sideways move” while Coyle – now lamentably – protested that Bolton were a decade ahead of their Lancashire neighbours.
History has shown, with Sean Dyche’s side now four seasons into their most recent stint in the top-flight and Wanderers having nearly dropped off the edge of a financial cliff, that sweeping statements like that have a way of coming back and biting you in the behind.
Not that it always looked as if Coyle would end up with egg on his face. There is a strong argument to suggest he fashioned the best Bolton team of the previous decade after first guiding the Whites away from relegation, striking just the right balance between the grit in players he inherited from Megson, and his own more aesthetically pleasing footballing principles.
When life was good under Coyle, it was great. American Stu Holden had been plucked from relative obscurity to become one of the Premier League’s top young midfielders, Mark Davies, Chung-Yong Lee and Johan Elmander started to respond to a more forward-thinking approach, and Kevin Davies had hit his peak despite now entering into his thirties.
Much is made of the Scot’s relaxed attitude to training, his preference for a game of table tennis or a spot of five-a-side over any tactical sessions but those were traits gobble up by the public when the results were being delivered. Only afterwards were they aimed back as insults.
It all hit a high point at St Andrew’s. The sun, the packed-out Gil Merrick Stand, Chung-Yong’s leap to head home Davies’s flick and send a club still mourning Nat Lofthouse to Wembley for a semi-final against Stoke.
Had Coyle the power to rewind to one moment in his managerial career and lived it all again, it would be interesting to see if he chose the day he walked out of Burnley, or whether he would go back to Birmingham and make different decisions for there on in. For post FA Cup quarter final, it unravelled ruthlessly and quickly for both the club and its manager.
The big day out against Stoke was the stuff of nightmares. A Bolton team which looked woefully unprepared – and whose players would later admit as much – were hammered 5-0.
That was not before another fateful day at Old Trafford when Holden, earmarked as a target by every top club in the land, was cruelly mown down by Manchester United Jonny Evans.
Coincidentally, on the eve of Coyle’s 10-year anniversary the now-retired Holden reacted on Twitter to a United fan who asked pointedly what he was doing now.
“Sitting on my couch because one of your former players broke my knee in half,” he quipped.
Had Holden been available for the final, or Elmander not strangely been drafted into midfield alongside the industrious Fabrice Muamba, Europe would have beckoned once again regardless of the result in the final against Manchester City.
League form plummeted. Chung-Yong suffered a badly broken leg at Newport during pre-season and though a 4-0 win at QPR on the opening day of the 2011/12 campaign hinted at a new dawn, it would soon go pitch black.
Recruitment had peaked. Loan signings like Marcos Alonso and Rodrigo Moreno showed Coyle had an eye for a player yet his decisions in that crucial year were erratic.
Big money was spent on David Ngog, Marvin Sordell, Chris Eagles, Tyrone Mears with little immediate return, while loanees Ryo Miyachi, Dedryck Boyata and Tuncay were not a patch on his earlier triumphs with Daniel Sturridge and Jack Wilshere.
By March Bolton were in serious trouble. But an FA Cup quarter-final at Tottenham would prove another horrible bump in the road as Muamba collapsed after going into cardiac arrest. The midfielder’s life was thankfully saved, but his career was not.
Coyle showed impressive support during the difficult days afterwards as the former Arsenal man battled for his own survival – but as he steadily improved, the lack of structure in the team started to show.
Points were thrown away against West Brom at the Reebok, and Wanderers ended up the forgotten post-script to Martin Tyler’s “Aguero” battle cry on the final day – a draw at Stoke ultimately not enough to save their skin.
If bad luck had played its part in relegation. Poor planning was to blame for what was to come.
Wanderers gambled on retaining a high wage budget for their first Championship campaign in 11 years and still spent big on salaries for Matt Mills, Keith Andrews, Andy Lonergan and loanee Benik Afobe.
On paper Bolton had a team which should have bounced back but the resolve needed to carve out results at places like Burnley, Hull and Millwall had evaporated.
Fans blamed a lack of Plan B – always an easy fall-back – but the truth is that Coyle had lost the spark which made him such a fascinating and illuminating character in his earlier days at the Reebok.
The team suffered for spirit after dropping out of the big time, perhaps in the knowledge that it really could not have done so at a more inopportune moment. The television rights were about to expand dramatically and though Bolton were assisted by parachute payments they barely made a dent in a wage budget which was still £55.3million in 2012.
Coyle’s witticisms and smiles were suddenly not hitting the spot. And ironically it was a penalty by his former Burnley charge Chris Eagles, struck miles over the bar in a 2-1 defeat at Millwall, that proved the final straw.
His close relationship with former chairman Phil Gartside had bought him time he probably did not deserve and on October 9, 2012, he was grinning painfully for the cameras once again, this time in the car park of the club’s former training ground at Euxton, with club-sponsored shirt turned inside out, speaking to the Sky cameras about his contract being terminated.
Later spells at Wigan Athletic, Houston Dynamo, Blackburn Rovers and Ross County never quite flickered into life and his current role at Indian club Chennaiyin is far removed from the spotlight which once shone brightly on him, a man tipped to become a top-six manager.
It could have been great. And for a time, it was. But to paraphrase Coyle’s own words on entering the building at Bolton, football is all about timing. His, ultimately, was all wrong.
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