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Bolton Nuts » BWFC » Bolton Wanderers Banter » GREATEST SEASONS: One last hurrah for Lofthouse and his Wanderers

GREATEST SEASONS: One last hurrah for Lofthouse and his Wanderers

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse
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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 highest-ever post-war league finish in 1958/59.

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FOOTBALL was just a couple of years from abolishing the maximum wage and changing forever as a results but for one final season Bolton Wanderers could truly consider themselves a giant of the English game.

There won’t be too many supporters around who can remember the Whites being cock of the walk and they had twice finished third in the roaring twenties, when the club earned a reputation as kings of the cup.

But in 1958/59 the team which had beaten Manchester United in the 1958 FA Cup final was right up there with any in the land.

Nat Lofthouse was reaching the end of his illustrious career, likewise the fearsome full-back Tommy Banks, but it was felt after their Wembley triumph that Bill Ridding’s experienced squad had what it took to shake the league title from Wolverhampton’s grip.

Manchester United were also rebuilding fast after the tragedy of Munich and the likes of Arsenal and Burnley were also gathering some momentum.

Lofthouse made a fast start, scoring twice in a 4-0 defeat of Leeds United in front of a curiously small home crowd just shy of 30,000.

Fans returned in droves for the next home game, a 4-1 triumph against Manchester City, and Nat would make it five goals in five games when Birmingham were also despatched at Burnden a few days later to put Bolton on top of the early league table.

That changed on September 17 when Arsenal rocked Bolton back on their heels with a surprisingly comprehensive 6-1 win at Highbury. Gordon Nutt scored two of the goals for the Gunners, who were 3-0 up by half time and five to the good by the time Ray Parry rescued a consolation from the penalty spot.

Wanderers got a measure of revenge just over a week later as Brian Birch and Lofthouse helped them to a 2-1 win on home soil, a result which was followed up by a gutsy 1-0 triumph at a fog-filled Stamford Bridge, courtesy of another Lofthouse header.

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The new BBC programme Grandstand had just aired when Bolton were called to play the Charity Shield against Stan Cullis’s champions Wolves.

Hosted at Burnden in front of 36,029 fans, the game proved a one-sided affair and Bolton led 2-0 at the break through Hill and Neville Bannister. Lofthouse spent 10 minutes in goal after Joe Dean - in for Hopkinson - was injured. Thankfully, Hopkinson was watching in the stands and after he came down to get changed, Nat went on to score two goals in his more natural posiiton. Wolves got themselves a consolation through Cliff Durandt but the silverware was staying at Burnden.

Though the great Lion of Vienna was advancing in years, Bolton did have a couple of bright young attacking talents on the horizon, one of which was inside-forward Freddie Hill, who had been spotted playing junior football in Sheffield and signed ahead of Wednesday.

Hill had made his debut the season before but his first two goals came in a 4-0 win against Blackpool, one of which was from the penalty spot. His chance in the side had come as a result of an injury to Ray Parry – but he was soon pressing for regular inclusion in the side and flitted around a number of positions in midfield and attack that season.

Wanderers had the components for the title challenge but frustrating defeats against Burnley and West Ham had people questioning whether they had the consistency. The answer was a resounding victory against Manchester United, the majority of which was lost in the fog.

Bolton were without the injured Lofthouse but called once again on the reliable Ralph Gubbins as his understudy.

Conditions were so poor the match was only passed fit at 2.20pm by the officials, and though nine goals went in on the day, almost none of the supporters watching the game could lay claim to having seen them all.

Bryan Edwards put Bolton ahead six minutes in and Dennis Stevens made it two, heading in a free-kick conceded by future Whites boss Ian Greaves.

Alex Dawson halved the deficit for United but then on the stroke of half time a 30-yarder from Stevens left Harry Gregg standing.

Bobby Charlton latched on to Wilf McGuinness’s free kick to make it 3-2 but then Gubbins popped up with another obscured goal to keep the gap at two.

Dawson scored a second for the Reds before Parry scored a fifth from the spot. And as the evening drew in the visibility was so poor that Gubbins is down in the record books as the scorer of the sixth but no report at the time can say how the goal came about.

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On December 5, 1958, with the campaign nearly at its halfway stage, Wanderers were level on points with Arsenal at the top of the league.

By March 5 they had dropped four points off the pace to fourth but still had three games in hand on the Gunners, Wolves and Manchester United above them.

There had been much interest in whether Bolton could retain the cup and after a relatively straightforward passage past Scunthorpe in round three, old foes Wolves proved a tougher nut to crack.

Derek Henin put through his own goal to give the Old Golds the lead but after Lofthouse equalised, some fans must have thought Bolton’s name was on the cup again as Parry converted a penalty to put his side through.

Even more did it look like fate was on Wanderers’ side when at the third attempt they managed to negotiate local rivals Preston North End. A 2-2 draw at Burnden in the first game brought a crowd of 58,692 – the largest gate since 1946. Dougie Holden made sure Bolton got a replay on neutral territory and when the two teams met for the hat-trick game in nine days, Lofthouse ensured the Whites were in the hat for the sixth-round draw.

Unfortunately, Nottingham Forest were a step too far. Brian Birch’s goal at the City Ground proved only a consolation but Bolton had the solace of knowing they were beaten by the team who went on to lift the trophy at Wembley a few months later.

Back to the league, and their cup exploits might just have taken too much of a physical toll on an ageing side. Lofthouse scored a hat-trick in a 4-2 victory against Luton and Hill did likewise as Chelsea were whacked 6-0 at Burnden.

But some wobbly form in March saw them drop off the pace at the top of the table and having to win games in hand to make up the difference.

A 3-0 defeat to United on April 4 proved pivotal and as Wolves once again ran away with things at the top, Bolton were able to draw level on points with third-placed Arsenal to register their highest post-war league finish, but nothing more.

Lofthouse scored the only goal against Portsmouth to usurp Joe Smith’s record of 277 league goals for the club but couldn’t quite catch Chelsea’s Jimmy Greaves for the Golden Boot. His overall tally of 35, including the Charity Shield, was the best since Jack Milsom scored an identical number in the Second Division in 1935. Nobody has beat it since.

After scoring in a 3-1 win against Blackburn Rovers on the final day of the season Lofthouse played just six more times for Bolton, an ankle injury eventually curtailing the final years of his career.

Bolton finished sixth the next season as Burnley took the honours, doing so without their talismanic striker and with a few more of their old guard coming to the end of their top-flight careers.

Wanderers had been reliant – perhaps overly reliant – on Lofthouse and the famed £110 team that got them to Wembley in 1958, so when injuries started to bite in the final few months there was little in reserve.

Fortunes would fade significantly in the 1960s and despite some exciting young players emerging the economy of football now meant that Bolton had to trade to exist.

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