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Bolton Wanderers' most under-rated players of all time

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse
Some players were destined to have their name printed on the back of a shirt, or to be eulogised by fans decades later for scoring a winning goal, others end up as a question in a pub quiz, an answer on the tip of someone’s tongue.

Not everyone can enjoy cult hero status, lift silverware or make the all-time XIs. But time certainly allows some players and managers to be judged differently.

During the late 80s and early 90s Phil Neal could rarely count on unwavering support from the Burnden Park terraces and yet decades later the view has softened, his tenure now widely seen as laying firm foundations for Bruce Rioch’s subsequent success.

The wistfulness works in reverse too. Bolton’s Premier League dream ended nearly eight years ago but players once passed off as run of the mill in the top-flight are now being appreciated with a revisionist’s eye.

Fabrice Muamba, for example, will forever be remembered in football for how his career ended and his life was miraculously saved. Before the miracle of March 17, 2012, he was a hard-working midfielder who had struggled to win over fans at Bolton – at least until he was paired with more creative types in Stu Holden and Mark Davies.

The ‘underappreciated’ tend to fall into three categories: Those who are over-shadowed by bigger stars in the same side or era, those who naturally shun attention or spotlight, and those who spend so long with a particular club that they tend to be taken for granted. The latter is particularly the case for homegrown players whose popularity arch tends to be very different than players who are imported from elsewhere.

This is not necessarily an examination of Bolton players who have not received national acclaim – or Paul Jones and Kevin Davies would be vying for the top spot.

There is no particular order in the 10 players and managers listed below nor is their inclusion any slight on their ability. But in an effort to remember the stalwarts, the work-horses and the under-rated stars who have lined-up for Bolton down the years, we thought a few people deserved a mention.

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10. Keith Branagan

Of course, whenever the Reading play-off final victory in 1995 is mentioned, Branagan’s penalty save is brought up. But of the stars in Bruce Rioch’s side who hauled Wanderers into the Premier League for the first time via two promotions in three years, the goalkeeper perhaps gets less of a mention than he deserves.

It doesn’t help that following quickly in Branagan’s footsteps was a young Finn, Jussi Jaaskelainen, who despite criminally being overlooked by Match of the Day recently in a debate over the best Premier League keepers, is treasured in these parts.

Branagan was a little unlucky with injury, too, but he was the first in a rich seam of quality keepers that Bolton have mined ever since.

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9. Roy Greaves

No other outfield player represented Bolton Wanderers as many times as Roy Greaves, who donned a white shirt in the sixties, seventies and eighties, and yet the homegrown talent was arguably more appreciated after hanging up his boots.

Positional versatility might be a godsend for managers but had Greaves stayed as an inside forward and grabbed even more goals, he might well have got the acclaim many now feels he deserves.

That example was followed to a slightly lesser extent in the following decades by Julian Darby and Scott Green.

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8. Simon Charlton

Wanderers’ most consistent player for about four years running at the turn of the millennium and yet the 5ft 8ins Yorkshireman was – quite literally – overshadowed by the foreign legion who were grabbing the headline at the time.

Charlton did actually get the club’s player of the year award in 2004 shortly before leaving to sign for Norwich but his value to Allardyce in a handful of positions in those early days warrants a much bigger mention that he got at the time.

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7. Jimmy Phillips

You know what the old proverb says about familiarity? Well, there are plenty who believe that ‘Mr Bolton’ Jimmy Phillips never got the credit he deserved despite being a regular in the most successful Bolton sides of the nineties.

One of a select breed who made more than 400 appearances for the club – either side of stints at Rangers, Oxford United and Middlesbrough – he also scored some rockets and got more than 18,000 people at his testimonial against Celtic in 1998.

But when the club got fans to vote for the top 50 players in history Phillips only got in at 37th – some 12 places below Radhi Jaidi.

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6. Darren Pratley

Now this one may be controversial – but isn’t that what this list was designed for?

The Barking Pele had a tough start after signing for Bolton in the Premier League and, truth be told, never looked comfortable under the man who signed him from Swansea, Owen Coyle.

Yet three successive managers – Dougie Freedman, Neil Lennon and Phil Parkinson – not only made him a first team regular but also gave him the captain’s armband at one time or another. The reason? He was a hugely effective Championship ball-winner.

Yes, he conceded plenty of fouls. Yes, his goal return was never as good as it had been at his former club. But just as Zinedine Zidane needed a water carrier in Didier Deschamps, Pratley did the heavy lifting for a good few years in the Bolton midfield.

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5. Jared Borgetti

The Desert Fox. Why don’t Bolton players have nicknames like that anymore?

Signed by Sam Allardyce after Wanderers had qualified for Europe for the first time, Borgetti was the first Mexican to play in the English top-flight and absolutely lethal in the penalty box. An out-and-out striker he had no natural place in a team built around the physical anchor of Kevin Davies and he became more of an impact sub, which seemed a huge waste of talent.

For Borgetti read Ivan Klasnic and Adam Le Fondre years later.

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4. Henrik Pedersen

Let’s be honest, Bolton Wanderers have been spoiled by Danish talent but while Per Frandsen deservedly gets a mention as the Great Dane, Pedersen heads a list of Scandinavians whose service to the club remains rather underestimated.

Signed as an auxiliary striker by Sam Allardyce in the club’s return to the Premier League in 2001 the former Silkeborg man didn’t strike a chord right away with Bolton fans. Indeed, it took a couple of seasons before he truly got to grips with English football and started scoring important goals, by which time he was also being used in a wider role – and even as a full-back. That rule of versatility ringing true again.

To make matters worse, Pedersen was rather shunted out in his final season at Bolton, which was a massive shame considering the work he had put in to establishing the club as a top-flight force.

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3. Doug Holden

The glorious fifties was the last decade where Wanderers were really at the top of the pile and competing for the major trophies on a regular basis – and as such it spawned legends that are still revered to this day.

Holden played in both the 1953 and 1958 final, spent 11 seasons as a first team regular at Bolton, and also played five times for England in that time.

Should a player with that sort of CV warrant a mention in the club’s official all-time top 50? You think.

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2. Mike Whitlow

Nobody could possibly have a bad word to say about Mike Whitlow – one of the proper professionals who spent six seasons at Wanderers, straddling the millennium, having returned to the club he served as a schoolboy.

He wasn’t a household name, nor did he shift much merchandise, but as unsung heroes go, he just about tops the lot.

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1. Gary Megson

Before anyone starts writing a letter to the editor demanding a resignation, hear me out.

Wanderers was in a mess after Sam Allardyce resigned, taking most of his backroom with him in a summer of utter turmoil. Sammy Lee was simply not cut from the right cloth to be his successor and after giving the Premier League a two-months head start it was always going to take a “special set of skills” to steady the ship. Enter Mr Megson.

Not the fans’ choice – that much we knew – but a man who performed a textbook great escape from relegation in 2007/08.

The accusation most often levelled at him is that he spent money that was not made available to Sam Allardyce. And though you cannot help but wonder what might have happened had Eddie Davies opened the wallet wider in January 2006 rather than January 2008, Megson wasted very little.

Wanderers would eventually have played in front of an empty stadium, such was the relationship with the supporters towards the end, but would their Premier League stay have been longer had Megson remained in charge?

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