Madchester's Summer of Rave was just about to get underway, the Fred Perry T-shirts and Doc Martens on the terraces starting to be replaced by baggy tie-dyes and trainers.
Football’s hard edge was being eroded in what had been a desperate time, punctuated so tragically with the loss of lives in the Hillsborough Disaster.
The following month had been awash with emotion. Liverpool had won a tearful FA Cup against Everton then been pipped to the title by Arsenal in a moment of dramatic TV history six days later, a game also immortalised in Nick Hornby’s wildly popular novel, Fever Pitch.
A sport which had been marginalised so severely during the eighties was about to move back into the mainstream, changes which would be accelerated by improving stadia, a return to European competition and the advent of the Premier League.
And moreover, the North West was at the centre of the cultural change – through music, fashion, and sport.
A sadness still clouded the game as Wanderers travelled down to North London in the Sherpa Van Trophy final. Ferry Cross the Mersey had been re-released to raise money for the Hillsborough families and topped the charts on the day Phil Neal’s team looked to win their first cup competition since 1958.
A wind of change had been blowing at Burnden Park too. Robbie Savage’s winner at Wrexham had made their stay in Division Four a short one and though a post-September slump wrecked any chances of back-to-back promotions, Wanderers went to Wembley to face Torquay United on a 19-match unbeaten streak.
“We were flying at that point,” former striker John Thomas told The Bolton News. “We were about to break a club record unbeaten run and I’ve always said if that season had been six games longer we would have gone up.
“That team had some good players. You had lads like Steve Thompson who could really pass the ball, full-backs who could run up and down all day and that made the job of being a striker dead easy.”
Wanderers had finished 10th in Division Three, their brief dalliance with relegation put to bed by February, by which point the focus fell on cup football.
But the Whites’ route to Wembley had been an ordeal. A last-minute penalty from Steve Thompson against Preston had helped Wanderers sneak out of the group stages, and Julian Darby would knock out the same opposition in the first knockout round.
The quarter-final was a classic. Trailing to Joey Jones’s 63rd minute goal, Mark Winstanley hit the shot of his career to send the game into extra time at Burnden, where after Roger Preece’s red card he and Robbie Savage scored to set up a semi-final date with Blackpool.
Bolton manufactured a narrow advantage in the home leg via Darby’s long-distance effort but the game will be remembered more for a penalty that didn’t hit the back of the net.
“Russel Coughlan,” Thomas said. “He hit the back of Normid with that one. He won’t live that down.”
Penalties would settle the tie, too. After Andy Garner had scored from the spot at Bloomfield Road to level the aggregate score and ensure extra time, Thompson hit the winner in the 120th minute to put Wanderers back at Wembley three years after their disappointment against Bristol City in the Freight Rover Trophy.
Thomas, who had watched that defeat with the Bolton fans, was determined to enjoy every second.
“I remember Alf Davies, the commercial manager, giving me some advice before it all happened,” he said. “He’d spoken to players at Mansfield who had been there a few years earlier and they said it all passed them by. There was no time to soak it up.
“So when we were on the team bus going into the stadium I made sure I was right down there near the gear sticks. I wanted to see every single thing on my way down Wembley Way, all the fans, everything.
“My mate Alan Bell ran the club shop and I’d dropped in earlier in the week and he’d sold out of virtually everything. The fans had it all.
“I’d imagine every coach in Bolton was booked up because it atmosphere was great when we got there, it gives me goosebumps just thinking about it now.”
Wanderers, who had sealed promotion ahead of Torquay the season prior, were strong favourites. But despite the class gap they struggled early on to make their superiority count and David Felgate – who had been absent three years earlier when the league failed to sanction a loan extension from Grimsby – was called upon to make a few important saves.
Torquay did forge ahead, however, when Jimmy McNichol’s near-post corner dropped over the head of Trevor Morgan and was bundled in by Dean Edwards.
Julian Darby brought the Whites level. Brown flicked on Chandler’s corner but the number 10 still had plenty to do, manufacturing a yard on the turn to slide a shot past keeper Kenny Allen on his left-hand post.
It was at that stage, Thomas felt Torquay’s resolve had been broken.
“Our game-plan had been to try and use my pace and get the balls into the channels,” he said. “So once we got level we started making the pitch a bit bigger and it meant those gaps started to appear.”
The ploy had actually been fine-tuned on the training ground outside London, explained Brown.
“Phil Neal had identified there would be space behind the full-backs for John (Thomas) and Trevor (Morgan) so he got me and Barry Cowdrills to knock the ball long.
“But when we were going through it we needed a couple of extra bodies to pose as Torquay defenders, so we had Phil Gartside and Brett Warburton roped in.
“I can still see them standing there in their shorts – Phil went to try and head the ball and ended up falling over, it was hilarious, but I suppose they played a part because the plan worked.”
However unconventional their preparation, it was through the precise passing of Steve Thompson and Dean Crombie and the hard running of the two full-backs that put Torquay on the back foot.
In the event, it was a long ball from Mark Winstanley who picked out Cowdrill’s run on the left for the second goal, his cross laid-off by Thomas for Chandler to hit a shot which deflected off John Morrison and into the net.
Though many gave it as an own goal at the time, there was little question that Chandler was claiming it.
“He was off like a shot over those advertising board,” Brown said. “I’ve never seen him move so fast.”
The 92-degree pitchside heat sapped and the game slowed but there was still room Wanderers to score a goal some still believe was never matched at the old Wembley Stadium.
Forget Ricky Villa, Paul Gascoigne or Sir Bobby Charlton – Dean Crombie is the name Bolton fans will reach for if they were present at the national stadium that day.
Crombie had never scored before for Bolton, and scored only two more thereafter, but the man who would go on to win the club’s player of the year award that season will be forever remembered for the one he started and finished in the second half.
And yet Thomas devilishly admits he came close to pinching the credit.
“When I started out as a young striker at Everton, Colin Harvey used to tell me to make sure I got on the end of everything – so if that pitch had been 10 yards longer, I’d have had a tap,” he laughed. “At least that’s what I always tell Deano.
“It really was a great goal. There can’t have been many better. But it all came from their corner and I got the ball from him, gave it to Jeff Chandler and he knocked it on to Dean who’d gone running on, I’m not sure what he was doing up there but there was no stopping him. It was a lovely finish.”
Torquay were deflating like so many of the Norpigs in the May heat. More so after the final goal of the day – one arguably better-crafted.
Brown’s marauding running – which would help him lose six-and-a-half kilos on the day – led to a nice ball with the outside of the right foot to find substitute Stuart Storer, and when he beat Tom Kelly to swing a cross into the box, Trevor Morgan was there to pass the ball into the net.
The striker’s forward roll celebration has also lodged itself in the fans’ collective consciousness and wasn’t one of the more graceful seen at the national stadium.
Wanderers had met Elton John during the pre-match pleasantries but Brown’s next handshake would be as he collected the cup. He grabbed a bucket hat from a supporter on his way up the stairs and every player was then on a mission to get their memento from the day.
“I remember after getting the cup me and Browny were on the lap of honour and grabbed a Union Jack flag from one of the fans,” he said. “I have still got a photo of us somewhere.
“We’d actually planned to have a party back at the hotel win or lose but as you can imagine, it went by a lot better after that performance. It was just incredible.
“It was the only time I got to play at Wembley in my whole career. But I can’t complain. Just to have that one afternoon and have it go so right, it was something I will never forget. It was truly special.”
The Bolton side was welcomed back by thousands of supporters in Victoria Square, the optimism brimming that such a long, undefeated streak would equate to a promotion charge the following season.
With silverware in hand the parties started early that summer in the people's republic of Boltonia. And though there would be a few dips in the the next two or three years, the team was destined to glow White Hot.
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