Paul Danson’s final whistle blew and chaotic scenes of celebration swept across the pitch at Wrexham, players in white hugging and dancing, soon to be joined by a tidal wave of supporters.
But in a pre-internet age long before live scores at the fingertip and Jeff Stelling’s rhetoric on Soccer Saturday definitive proof that Robbie Savage’s goal had been enough to send Bolton back into Division Three was still a couple of moments away.
Some 300 miles south at Plainmoor and trailing 2-1, Torquay United were launching one final attack in an effort to draw level with Scunthorpe United, whose manager Mick Buxton had fled the touchline to pace outside the stadium with a bottle of brandy to steady his nerves.
The second the game ended Wanderers boss Phil Neal dashed to the dressing room in an effort to find a TV to see the BBC’s vidiprinter bring him the news he longed for. And by the time he emerged back out of the tunnel his squad had been engulfed by a swarm of joyous fans finally getting their day in the sun.
It is important to put into context those scenes and just how far Bolton had fallen by the start of the 1987/88 season. Several months earlier Fourth Division football had been confirmed with a dismal defeat against Aldershot in the league’s short-lived experimentation with relegation play-offs.
After entering into the eighties with a team playing top-flight football, Bolton fans were now seeing the thinnest end of the wedge. Against a backdrop of continual financial struggle the club dropped down the divisions. Crowds at Burnden – a stadium now showing its age, flanked by the carbuncle of a Normid Superstore and riddled with hooliganism – had dropped to just a few thousand.
There was a very real risk that the club could be cut adrift for good, a fact not lost on a young Julian Darby, who had watched the superstars of the seventies from the touchline and graduated through the youth ranks.
“I was very green at the time we went down to the Fourth Division,” he recalled. “I was 19 when we played Aldershot and it didn’t really hit me what a big thing it was.
“I’d been out for about six weeks with a thigh injury so I was watching the demonstrations from the fans and thinking ‘Christ, where is this going?”
Wanderers knew the pressure was on. The sales of Tony Caldwell, George Oghani, Mike Salmon, Asa Hartford and Mark Gavin were reinvested in old boys like John Thomas, Jeff Chandler and Neil Whatmore plus new faces like Trevor Morgan, Gary Henshaw and Dean Crombie.
But while there was confidence that Phil Neal had enough quality in his squad to make the stay at this level of football a short one, the journey proved somewhat of a rollercoaster ride.
A 4-0 defeat at league newcomers Scarborough in August had been a rude awakening but not the only time that pride would be dented. Neal held crisis talks with his players after a 2-1 defeat at Tranmere in December, bemoaning a “lack of leadership,” and then shipped four goals in 45 minutes against leaders Wolves to chants of “what a load of rubbish” from the stands.
Sandwiched between the disappointments were little slices of joy. John Thomas scored a hat-trick at Peterborough in what was the club’s best away win for a decade, then grabbed another match-ball in a 6-0 rout against Newport at Burnden.
Jeff Chandler’s fairytale return from injury to score with virtually his first touch in a 4-0 win against Colchester United on the penultimate weekend set up the grand finale at Wrexham, where three points coupled with defeat for third-placed Torquay United against Scunthorpe would put Bolton up alongside Wolves and Cardiff.
“I think some credit goes to the board at the time because they got a few players in and turned things around,” Darby reflected. “The manager held things together. It wasn’t perfect and there were a few shaky moments along the way but to set things up and for the final day knowing automatic promotion was possible - it was one of the most exciting games I have ever been involved in.”
Wanderers’ trip to Wrexham took place a week before the Crazy Gang of Wimbledon would beat the Culture Club of Liverpool at Wembley and in the first few days where you legally couldn’t use a pound note at the shops.
Bolton hadn’t once hit top spot but thanks in the main to John Thomas’s steady supply of goals form recovered just in time to feel momentum was on their side, even if the more truthful members of the camp believed a play-off route would be needed.
“You knew how big a game it was looking out of the window on the team bus,” Darby said. “From about four or five miles away from Wrexham all you could see were Bolton fans, Bolton buses, Bolton rosettes and scarves in cars.
“But the pressure was on Torquay against Scunthorpe because they were at home. We just needed to go out and win a game against Wrexham knowing we’d have all that backing.”
The game – as so often when such gut-wrenching pressure is around – was hardly a flowing affair. Neal’s side had been criticised for their lack of verve, something which regularly annoyed the former Liverpool defender.
“I am sure the supporters don’t want to see us score three goals and concede five,” he said in the build-up to the Wrexham game. “We have based our success this season on giving nothing away and we’ve seen the results.”
Bolton coped comfortably with Wrexham in the first half but Thomas – who had borrowed his manager’s boots for the occasion – missed a couple of chances to soothe nerves and add to his 22 league goals.
News filtered through that Torquay had fallen 2-0 behind against Scunthorpe, which brought the promotion dream that little bit closer.
Geoff Hunter was sent off 20 minutes into the second half for a poor challenge on Darby and the resulting free kick would finally provide with Whites with the breakthrough they needed. Savage’s initial free kick was cleared but as Bolton kept the pressure on, Andy May flicked a header, Mark Came poked the ball on and Savage ghosted in at the far post to drill a shot past Salmon.
But that was nowhere near the end of the drama. Torquay actually grabbed a goal back at a near-identical stage of their game but as the jitters set in for Wanderers they began to give the ball away and make mistakes with alarming regularity.
The defence that had looked so sure now appeared vulnerable and anxiety was turned up to full blast when Thomas was sent off for a second bookable offence with five minutes to go.
To a chorus of deafening whistles in the Border Stand the final whistle could just about be heard, and for those who had heard through transistor radios the latest scoreline from Devon, the celebrations could begin.
“Once we knew what had happened I just remember there being arms and legs everywhere,” Darby told The Bolton News. “The fans were just ripping everything off. I think I got away to the edge of the pitch with just my undies on.
“Once that final whistle went it was bananas. Just a massive rush of fans."
“It’s like Escape from Alcatraz,” exclaimed Dave Sutton, who had watched the last 20 minutes from the terraces after missing the final five games of the season through injury.
Blonde-haired centre-back Sutton had earned promotion with Plymouth in 1975 and taken Huddersfield up twice but the nerves still got to him in the final stages.
“I just couldn’t cope with all the tension in the stands so about 20 past four me and Hughesie (young defender, Paul Hughes) decided we’d go and stand on the terraces with the supporters.
At one stage, wearing his 1986 Club Wembley suit, he stood on a crash barrier leading the chants and screaming on instructions to his team-mates.
Bolton’s captain, Derek Scott, raised a glass to his father-in-law Brian Miller, manager of Burnley, who had beaten Torquay a few days earlier to give the Whites a glimmer of hope in their automatic promotion chase.
“That was the result that really made it all possible,” the Geordie said. “I think I owe him a drink.”
His celebrations may have been slightly more reserved than those of the fans but nobody in North Wales that day was more delighted than club president Nat Lofthouse, who made a point of shaking every player’s hand and beaming: “This is the road back for Bolton Wanderers.
“I was always confident we would do it. But I must admit, I was glad the goal went in when it did.”
Things were about to change at Bolton and in English football as a whole. We were 12 months away from the tragedy of Hillsborough and a few years away from the rebranded Premier League.
If, as expected, Wanderers drop into League Two this season they will be better equipped, Darby believes.
“I was thinking the other day about being in a similar situation now. But as I’m sitting here talking we’ve got a fantastic stadium, a hotel, a great training ground.
“Back then we didn’t even have a place to train. We’d sold Bromwich Street and we were doing days at Leverhulme Park or Harper Green, anywhere we could find a patch of grass.
“Burnden was fantastic for many reasons but no matter how hard you scrubbed it, it didn’t come clean.
“People talk a lot about the atmosphere but a lot of that was down to standing. When you see the old pictures and how the fans could be crammed in, it’s like a different game now.
“I think there’s a lot more of a reason to be optimistic these days.”
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