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Bolton Wanderers' greatest seasons: The 1992/93 campaign

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse
This season may linger long in the memory for the wrong reasons – but in the second of a five-part series we ask, what was the stand-out campaign in Wanderers’ history, and why?

In the third instalment – the 1992/93 promotion season.

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IT was memorable, it was dramatic… It was quite simply, White Hot.

New heroes emerged in front of the Burnden terraces in the 1992/93 season, a year which saw Wanderers beat holders Liverpool in the FA Cup, secure promotion to the second tier after a decade in exile, and catch up with a new fresh wave of enthusiasm which was sweeping English football in the new Premier League era.

The eighties had been a largely dark time for Bolton. Burnden Park was showing its age, hooliganism – which had blighted the sport for a decade – was rife, and the club had fallen into the bottom division for the first time in its history.

Phil Neal got things moving back in the right direction but his side had fallen at the final hurdle on a couple of occasions and he never did get the promotion his diligence perhaps deserved.

Bruce Rioch was the man Bolton picked to do what Neal could not. And though the former Scotland captain and title-winner with Derby County had an impressive playing pedigree, his managerial CV at Torquay, Middlesbrough and Millwall was not quite dazzling enough to make him a unanimously popular appointment among fans at the time.

Indeed, the letters pages of The Bolton Evening News were peppered with opinions on who was better placed to do the job. And the nay-sayers continued to grumble in what was a difficult start for the new boss.

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For while much is made of the face Rioch and his backroom, which included another future manager in Colin Todd, set straight to work cleaning seats, painting woodwork and instigating a more regimented approach at Burnden, little is now mentioned of the fact it didn’t go immediately according to plan.

Indeed, after winning three of the first four games of the season, Wanderers’ form sagged quickly and they were closer to the relegation zone than the promotion picture by mid-October.

So what changed? Well, much came down to recruitment – in particular the arrival of goalkeeper Keith Branagan, winger David Lee, and striker John McGinlay.

Branagan was Rioch's first addition, replacing the outgoing David Felgate, and played in every single league game that season, establishing himself as a firm favourite among the Bolton faithful.

Lee had been unhappy at Southampton and wanted to return to the North West, where he had made his name with Bury. He made a debut in a 3-1 win at Exeter City and a month later completed a move for £275,000, playing every single game thereafter.

McGinlay may have signed for Bolton in Phil Neal’s era and met with the Bolton boss for talks during his time with Shrewsbury. But convinced by his long-time mentor, Ian McNeil, he left Millwall for Wanderers in September 1992 in a £175,000 deal to become a crucial cog in the machine.

The Scot would share 55 goals with his compatriot Andy Walker that season – a strike partnership that could have been potentially even more prolific had it not been for a horrific injury suffered by Walker six games before the end.

The McGinlay-Walker axis replaced David Reeves and Tony Philliskirk and started to pay instant dividends. Between October 17 and January 7, there was only one game in which one or the other did not get on the scoresheet.

Along the way were some thumping victories. Wanderers put four past Fulham and Burnley, five past Bradford, and the head of steam they had built in the league translated to the FA Cup too.

Having beaten Sutton Coldfield and Rochdale – a game that included a goal on debut for exciting youngster Jason McAteer – Wanderers drew cup holders Liverpool at Burnden Park in round three.

Graeme Souness’s side arrived on January 3 to find a pitch which had been ‘doctored’ for the occasion, smiled midfielder Tony Kelly a few years later.

“The groundstaff reckoned the undersoil heating got broken overnight but we’ve heard plenty of rumours about it getting switched off. It worked a treat because Liverpool didn’t fancy it at all.

“If it ever looked like the game might get called off at Burnden Park, the gaffer used to send us out in short sleeved shirts to try and influence the referee.

“The ref didn’t know we had loads of Fiery Jack slapped all over us. We had to run around to cool us down.

“When Liverpool came out they were covered in scarves, gloves, hats, you had the likes of Ian Rush looking at us and thinking ‘what are these lunatics doing?’ “It was all mind games.”

The game finished 2-2 and as Rioch remarked at the time “they will think the hard work is done” – but what followed 10 days later was a night nobody of a Bolton persuasion will ever forget.

There is barely a tale left to tell about the night Wanderers ripped through Liverpool at Anfield. John McGinlay opened the scoring with a towering header then turned provider for Walker for the second.

Kelly orchestrated midfield, Lee – playing in what would nowadays be termed an inverted winger’s role – gave his marker Mike Marsh nightmares.

But a benefit of the Liverpool victory which is sometimes overlooked is the fact it provided Wanderers with the revenue to keep together a squad that was now turning heads in Division Two.

Youngsters Alan Stubbs and Jason McAteer were maturing quickly and part of a solid spine which remained intact after the New Year, winning 10 of 12 games between February 27 and April 12, when Walker’s injury threatened to shake loose the solid foundations.

Not for the first time in his Bolton career, Julian Darby would step into the breach. He filled in alongside McGinlay to grab some crucial goals in the run-in – including a winner against champions Stoke City to set up an exciting last-day.

Needing victory to stay ahead of Port Vale, Wanderers welcomed Preston North End to Burnden, the Lillywhites also in dire need of points to avoid relegation.

A tense and error-strewn game played out in front of 21,720 supporters and was settled with a typically clinical penalty from McGinlay.

“It was a terrible game,” he recalled to The Bolton News. “We had been flying at the time. We knew to stay in touch we needed to win every single week and that brought a lot of pressure.

“John Beck was in charge at Preston and he put 10 men behind the ball at all times. They were belting balls out of play, wasting time, pulling every trick they could to make sure they didn’t lose the game. They had to get something out of it to stay up but in the end that negativity cost them.

“David Lee was flying and he’d created all sorts of chances, balls going across the penalty box and no-one getting a touch, it was bobbling about all over the place and at one stage I thought ‘this is just going to be one of those days.’ “But then it happened. Didsy takes a player on and puts a ball in, gets a dubious penalty for handball and that’s the chance. It’s handed to us on a plate.

“Everyone thought we were going to roll straight over them because of how well we’d been going and it wasn’t that type of game.”

However they got there, they got there. Bolton had finally avoided the play-off lottery, and the town felt like they had won one.

A civic reception was held in Victoria Square with thousands of Wanderers fans flocking to see the players, who arrived via a bus top parade through the streets.

“We were the talk of the town again,” Rioch recalled. “We had players that people wanted to see and the fans responded accordingly.

“It was a great unit. I had Andy Walker, David Lee, Julian Darby, Mark Patterson, Alan Stubbs and Jason McAteer were breaking through, you had Phil Brown in his prime and David Burke on the other side, later Jimmy Phillips.

“Then there was Tony Kelly. When we arrived he was out of condition but we whipped him into shape, kept him motivated and he rewarded us by being one of the best passers of the ball anywhere around. He had all the talent, it was just a case of keeping his head right.

“The noise in Burnden when it was full was quite something. It was a wonderful place to be in at the time.”

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