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Bolton Wanderers' greatest seasons: The 2004/05 campaign

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse
Over the next five days we will be showcasing five famous seasons in Bolton Wanderers’ history – we want you to decide which one is the very best.

From Big Sam’s European adventure, the fabulous fifties and Ian Greaves Rock n Roll Wanderers to Bruce Rioch’s White Hot side and the team which bid farewell to Burnden in the most spectacular way possible, we’ll lay out the evidence.

And on Sunday we’ll be putting it to a grand vote.

Today, the 2004/05 season which saw Wanderers qualify for Europe for the first time in their history.

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ONLY with the benefit of hindsight and several years spent in financial purgatory can you truly appreciate what a vintage year 2004 was for Bolton Wanderers.

It was the season the club qualified for the UEFA Cup for the first time, finishing ahead of Manchester City, Newcastle United, Aston Villa, Middlesbrough and Spurs, and level on points with Liverpool. Bolton were just three points off the Champions League.

Youri Djorkaeff had gone but another crown prince arrived in the shape of Real Madrid legend Fernando Hierro, later joined by another World Cup winner in full-back Vincent Candela for the run-in.

Whereas Wanderers’ route to the Premier League and the consequent years trying to establish themselves among the elite had been done with an air of make-do, the 2004/5 campaign was a time when Sam Allardyce’s meticulous planning, a backroom packed with specialist talent and a team assembled with the cheque book of Eddie Davies came together in a special way.

That is not to say Bolton simply bought success. Wages had yet to balloon, indeed 2004’s financial accounts showed a slight drop from the previous year, £24.4million to £23.3million. And to put that into context, Chelsea were blitzing the competition on £114.8m, followed up by the likes of Manchester United (£79.5m), Arsenal (£69.7m), Liverpool (£65.6m) and Newcastle United (£44.4m).

Wanderers took points off them all.

There was a changing of the guard in pre-season as Djorkaeff’s inability to settle a contract saw him sign for neighbouring Blackburn and there were departures for other fan favourites too. Per Frandsen went to Wigan, Simon Charlton to Norwich and – in a slightly less emotional farewell – Mario Jardel completed a move back to South America with Newell’s Old Boys.

In came a handful of younger talents like Radhi Jaidi, Tal Ben Haim and the enigmatic El-Hadji Diouf on loan from Liverpool. Hierro’s arrival was a head-turner but the £750,000 capture of Gary Speed from Newcastle United might well have been the most important deal of the lot.

Suddenly, Allardyce has quality in depth, something he felt he lacked the previous year. And the confidence brimmed in late summer – Charlton hammered 4-1 with two apiece for Henrik Pedersen and Jay Jay Okocha, still just about in his pomp.

Kevin Davies scored to sink Liverpool at the Reebok, and the big Tunisian Jaidi proved to be a potent weapon at set pieces too, grabbing goals against Arsenal, Birmingham, Spurs and Chelsea.

Wanderers so nearly upset the old enemy, Manchester United, too. Leading 2-1 with goals from Kevin Nolan and Les Ferdinand, only a contentious injury time effort from David Bellion spared Sir Alex Ferguson’s side another defeat at the Whites’ hands.

Although later years would dull Bolton’s reputation as giant-killers in the top-flight, Allardyce revelled at that stage in the ‘Little Old Bolton’ tag and the element of surprise which may have worn off eventually was still there in abundance.

The season was not without its drama. Senegal midfielder Khalilou Fadiga collapsed during a warm-up in a League Cup tie against Tottenham in an eerie precursor to the same problem Fabrice Muamba would suffer at White Hart Lane some seven years later. Heart specialists in Italy urged him to quit the game even after having a defibrillator fitted under his ribcage in an operation staged in Belgium but he returned to make four more appearances in the Premier League that very campaign.

Wanderers also suffered a pronounced mid-season slump during which they failed to win in 10 consecutive league games, their worst run since the mid-1980s.

Some opponents may have said there was an element of karma to Bolton’s misfortunes at the time. Diouf had gained rapid popularity among the Reebok faithful but his behaviour drew some unwanted negative publicity to the club.

After an incident against Middlesbrough when it was claimed the striker spat at a fan, he was then caught on camera doing the same to Portsmouth skipper Arjan de Zeeuw.

Bolton were forced into a grovelling apology and Diouf fined the maximum allowed but, in truth, the whole unsavoury spell did little but cement his legend among the Whites faithful – now singing his name to the tune of the Tony Christie classic, Amarillo.

Once the furore died down, Wanderers recovered their poise at the turn of 2005 with a home draw against West Brom followed by a 2-1 win at Birmingham City, courtesy of goals from Kevin Nolan and the incomparable Diouf. From there, they only suffered three more defeats in the remaining 16 games.

Stelios scored a rocket in a home win against Norwich City and the finishing line looked well within sight as Okocha netted in victories against Fulham and Charlton, at the Valley.

The nerves did start to kick in during the final weeks, leaving the top four a frustratingly elusive target for Allardyce, but European football was secured with a 1-1 draw at Portsmouth’s Fratton Park on the penultimate weekend.

Wanderers had the experience to see themselves over the line, underlining Allardyce’s insistence to splash cash on older heads like Speed, Candela and Hierro – who was offered a hero’s send-off on the final weekend, as Everton were beaten at the Reebok.

Hierro’s success had come in part at Ivan Campo’s expense with the countrymen left fighting for the same holding midfield position for most of 2005. At one stage it looked as if the decision to bring in the 36-year-old, who had been playing in the Middle East, had been a mistake, and Wanderers surreptitiously circulated his name for transfer around Christmas time. He came into his own post-February, however, and few before or since have brought so many audible gasps from a Bolton crowd with the quality and range of their passing.

Campo would recover, of course, and go on to become one of the most popular Bolton players in recent memory.

For Allardyce it was arguably his greatest club triumph. Later revelations would uncover that Newcastle United tried to poach him mid-season and the fact Champions League football had been so close in 2005 will almost certainly have fuelled his ambition for more. If you know your history, you know how that one turned out for all concerned.

This was the year Bolton evolved. Though the following season had European football, and they would get there again in 2006/7, the club’s progress from there under Big Sam always had a political cloud hanging overhead.

"I've been saying all season that you've got to break records and create history, if you can," reflected the Wanderers boss after the final whistle.

"There's nothing I've achieved in the game that is greater than this - and I've won promotions and championships.

"And for the club, which has never been in Europe before, I believe, there is nothing bigger than this.

"We've made club history and it's a bit special to have done what we've done."

"We've gone from a struggling Premiership football side in just four seasons to claim a European place, having spent less than anybody else - much less in most cases - and we even had a sniff at the Champions League, which really is remarkable for a club like ours.

"To think we actually had that opportunity and only let ourselves down by tossing away those points against Liverpool, Southampton, Chelsea, and at Portsmouth on Saturday, is almost unbelievable.

"Had we finished the season anything like we finished the last three, we'd have been challenging Everton next Sunday for that fourth Premiership spot.

"We came ever so close to that wildest dream but the ultimate goal we set ourselves has been achieved - even after losing six on the trot in the middle of the season. That shows the levels we set over the rest of the season when we could take just three points from 10 games and still manage what we set out to do."

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