It is not too big an exaggeration to claim that without the 2-1 victory at Hull City, sealed so dramatically by John McGinlay’s late goal, there may never have been a White Hot era under Bruce Rioch.
The team, now shorn of the injured Andy Walker, still trailed third-placed Port Vale by four points after beating Bournemouth at Dean Court three days earlier – their 13th win out of their last 16 outings.
Wanderers found themselves back on the road again and knew three points was a must if they were to avoid needing snookers in the final two matches at Burnden against Stoke City and Preston. But as Rioch remarked after a breathless 90 minutes: “The character in this team is quite phenomenal.”
Recovering from a goal down with 10 men following Alan Stubbs’ dismissal for deliberate handball, this proved to be a huge turning point not only in Bolton’s promotion chase but in the club’s modern history.
The significance was not lost on the travelling fans, officially numbered at 3,700, who flooded on to the pitch after each Wanderers goal, briefly putting the completion of the game into jeopardy.
“There was a different feel about it right away because it was a Friday night,” recalled Julian Darby – the homegrown star who had helped Bolton bounce back from relegation to the Fourth Division at the end of the previous decade.
“We’d been to Bournemouth earlier in the week and there were thousands of Bolton fans down there. But I knew my mates were getting ready early for Hull. They were going to make a day of it.
“And when the team coach travelled up there, the minute we got near the ground all you could see was Bolton. It looked like the whole town had come to watch, they were everywhere.
“When you walked out on the pitch it looked like Bolton had three sides of the ground. It was like a home match at Burnden.”
Darby’s service to Wanderers is well documented. A ball boy at Burnden from the age of seven, his father worked in the offices and his youth was spent watching the likes of Sam Allardyce, Paul Jones, Frank Worthington and Peter Reid run out to packed out crowds in the seventies.
As a player he went through some of the toughest times imaginable, but some say the 90 minutes at Hull were his best in a Bolton shirt.
The loss of free-scoring Scot Walker to a cruciate ligament injury against Swansea City on April 12 had threatened to derail Wanderers’ progress but faced with few obvious options, Rioch got creative for the final half dozen games.
“Initially the manager put Scott Green up front,” Darby explained. “I don’t think we had another striker – and it seems daft to say we ‘just’ had John McGinlay and Andy Walker because they were brilliant.
“But Scott played against Bradford and after that Colin Todd pulled me aside in training and said ‘you’re playing up front’ so I did what I could do, practised shooting and that kind of thing in training.
“I scored at Bournemouth and Browny got the winner, sent the fans absolutely mad. And by that point we believed it was happening.
“By the time we got to Hull I was feeling quite comfortable up front and then Stubbsy got sent off. I get the call to go and play centre-back again – so it went from one extreme to the other.”
The penalty conceded by Stubbs was converted by Dean Windass, Hull’s terrace hero, but the response from Bolton was to raise the tempo and push even harder for a route back into the game.
With Tony Kelly and Jason McAteer leading the charge from midfield, the Whites gained more and more territorial advantage. And in the end, a header from Mark Seagraves forced Windass to stab the ball into his own net – sparking the first mass pitch invasion of the night.
“I remember us getting back to 1-1 and thinking ‘we’ve got this now’,” said Darby. “Then suddenly there fans everywhere. All hell had broken loose.”
Indeed, the over-exuberance of the supporters seemed to be a concern for the local constabulary and the match referee. Hull defender Rob Miller lay injured during the melee – and it was not until he got back to his feet that the players could be completely sure the game would continue.
Hull had chances to re-stablish their lead, Keith Branagan pulling off two vital saves from Paul Hunter and then another from Windass to deny him a moment of redemption. Words some 27 years after the event fail to describe the excitement of what followed. So here’s the legendary Dave Higson’s account of the winning goal.
“Seagraves, gets the ball to Lee, David Lee beats his man, David Lee going past his man, gets the cross into the far post, Patterson’s there, now Burke, YEEEESSSS! GOAL! John McGinlay, what a man, what a ding-dong-doo. John McGinlay, he’s done it again!”
McGinlay completed his rescue act with a somersault and another wave of fans came flooding on to the pitch.
“When the second goal went in we were thinking ‘we can’t let this get called off’ and after Super John had finished celebrating we were trying to get people back over the fences,” Darby said.
“We just wanted to get to the final whistle by that point but you’re looking at the referee and he was worried about what was happening.
“Thankfully people started listening. Can you imagine if they had called it off?”
To quote Higson on commentary: “I don’t condone them coming on the pitch, it was just delight due to Super John McGinlay. I’d have probably done it myself.”
It was back to Burnden to complete the promotion run – Darby scoring a winner against Stoke the following weekend to set up a grand finale against Preston North End.
“I was showing my lads that game on YouTube the other day,” said the 52-year-old, now a first team coach with the Whites. “I don’t know what I was doing when I scored. I was all over the place.”
And few Bolton fans will need a reminder of how a place in Division One was secured from the penalty spot by McGinlay.
But Darby recalls that promotion looked a distant prospect pre-Christmas that season as new manager Rioch struggled at first to get a consistent run of results.
“We were only mid-table by October,” he said. “It didn’t go all that well at first. The catalyst was probably when David Lee came in on loan from Southampton and then after that it started to click.
“When he signed it gave everyone a bit of a boost and the actual percentage of wins in the second half of that season were incredible. It wasn’t as if we were even drawing games.
“I think if you ask any supporter at the time it was the perfect way to finish a season. We felt absolutely unbeatable and got to the stage that it didn’t matter who it was, home or away, there was just that confidence a result was going to come.”
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