When Sam Allardyce’s Wanderers got into the Premier League, fans had joked that if they got nothing else from the season, a victory against their old rivals would be enough. To do it on their own patch was the stuff of fantasy.
Cracks had begun to appear in United’s rock-hard veneer. The team that had lifted the title on seven of nine seasons prior was now stranded in transition – Sir Alex Ferguson’s revelation that he would retire at the end of the season had a destabilising effect, as had his decision to sell Jaap Stam to Lazio.
But while it could not be argued that the Reds had lost a modicum of invincibility, the task of beating them in front of their own supporters was no less formidable.
Even early wins against Leicester City, Middlesbrough and Liverpool had not convinced the doubters – spearheaded by TV pundits Mark Lawrenson and Rodney Marsh – that Big Sam’s upstarts were destined to be anything other than relegation fodder.
United had been beaten at home by Spanish side Deportivo La Coruna in the Champions League a few night earlier, which prompted a fresh wave of questions about their defensive resolve and especially that of erratic French keeper Fabien Barthez. In the event, only one goalkeeper would grab the headlines that Saturday afternoon – and it wasn’t him.
Ferguson was able to make eight changes to his team – dropping both David Beckham and Ryan Giggs - but still field 10 full internationals, including £28million record signing Juan Sebastien Veron.
“I remember quite a lot being made of the fact United had made so many changes, as if they had better things to do,” recalled former Bolton skipper Kevin Nolan.
“But when you went out for the warm-up and saw Veron, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole, I mean, they are world class players in anyone’s book.
“United maybe weren’t the side that had won the treble but they were very, very good and we knew we had to be at our very best to even stay with them.”
Allardyce had also tried to clear the disappointment of a 4-0 defeat to Newcastle United the previous weekend, among the changes a first top-flight start for Bruno N’Gotty in place of Anthony Barness.
United tried to pass through Wanderers in the early stages but without much natural width to deal with, the likes of Mike Whitlow, Gudni Bergsson and Paul Warhurst were able to present stubborn resistance, at least for 25 minutes.
Up front, the youthful Michael Ricketts came in for Dean Holdsworth and gave a reshuffled United defence some problems of their own.
Just as Allardyce’s plan began to frustrate the hosts, Argentine superstar Veron came up with a moment of genius, putting the ball into the top corner with a 30-yard free-kick that Beckham – watching in the stands – would have been proud to hit.
Lesser sides would have certainly buckled after going behind. Wanderers, however, hauled themselves back on level terms within 10 minutes.
The goal-scorer can recall every detail.
“I won’t forget that goal, never-ever,” Nolan laughed. “I remember Ricks heading it down and knowing there was no other place I could put the shot.
“But the fact that Barthez actually dived for it made it so much better.
“I cupped my ear because it was the only thing I could think to do. I’d been getting some stick for being a Scouser so when you’re a young lad you don’t mind giving a bit back.
“But I can remember how quiet the United fans went and looking up to see the Bolton end just going mad. You don’t get many away fans at Old Trafford but that was amazing.”
As the game moved towards half time, Jussi Jaaskelainen produced a moment which would be replayed for the decades to come.
A double save to deny Paul Scholes and Andy Cole, may well be the best by a Wanderers keeper in the Premier League era.
But what made it all the more remarkable was the fact the Finland international shouldn’t have been playing at all.
The Finland international had been sent off in the previous game against Newcastle United for a needless handball outside his penalty box, which left poor Bo Hansen to face the firing squad of Craig Bellamy and Alan Shearer.
Hansen was required to don the gloves because Steve Banks had dislocated his finger in training and panic set in a few days later when Jaaskelainen suffered a wrist injury which - for a while at least – had Allardyce considering some nuclear options.
The search for temporary back-up didn’t start well as French trialist Michael Bertocchi was subbed 35 minutes into a reserve game against Sunderland and never seen in Bolton again. His replacement was youngster Chris Williams, who is now coaching goalkeepers at Manchester City.
Nigerian international goalkeeper Abi Baruwa was also drafted into the training ground but not offered a deal.
Had Jaaskelainen’s wrist not stood up to scrutiny – as it most certainly did to push away Scholes’s low shot – there could have been trouble. His agility to then spread himself at the feet of Cole to block the second was pure class and was described by George Best, no less, as the best save he had seen that season.
Jaaskelainen’s magic gave Allardyce the chance to offer encouragement to his players to keep up the good work at the back and stimulation to his creative players, reminding them of a weakness he had highlighted in the United formation.
"We talked about playing little diagonals because we felt the full-backs played slightly in front of the centre halves," the manager explained.
"If you get the first pass right behind United's midfield then you'll have the opportunity to get at their back four.
"We didn't do that very well in the first half but we did in the second."
Inspired by their manager’s tactical tip, Wanderers did indeed take the game to United after the break.
Frandsen should have had a penalty when he was tripped by Wes Brown and as Allardyce upped the ante by introducing extra pace off the bench in the form of Jermaine Johnson, the Reds defence creaked under the pressure.
Wanderers lost Warhurst to a hip injury he had carried for half an hour but a reshuffled side continued to push forward in search of a history-making second.
With six minutes to go, they found it.
“I think Wes Brown made the mistake and the ball went to Ricks, and he just put it calmly away,” Nolan remembered. “Moments like that you’ll never forget. You just didn’t get teams going to Old Trafford and doing that to United. I can still see the shock on the faces.
“Sir Alex Ferguson was absolutely furious but Sam, I can remember running over towards the dugouts and seeing him look so smug.”
Graham Barber signalled the final whistle and ensured both Nolan and Ricketts were booked into an exclusive club which contained the likes of Nat Lofthouse and Frank Worthington. Any team cherishes a win against Manchester United, such is their standing in the game, but few with such passion as Bolton.
“I thought when they scored it was going to be easier for them," said Per Frandsen, who had been a doubt on the eve of the game with an ankle injury, "but we just kept going. Kevin scored a great goal and Jussi made big saves as well. You always have confidence in this team playing well away from home."
The Dane gave some insight into the effort Wanderers put into the game when he revealed why he admitted he did not have the energy to celebrate with matchwinner Ricketts.
"The goal came at a great time for us," he said. “But I was so knackered I couldn't run after him - even though it gave us an unbelievable win, something you could only dream about before the game."
For Nolan, it was a season that was getting better and better.
Having scored on his Premier League debut at Leicester on the opening day he now had a goal at Old Trafford under his belt. And it wouldn’t be his last.
Wanderers had showed the sort of belligerence against the Reds they would become famed for – but Allardyce would not allow his players to sit back and admire their achievements.
“We’d sat down and made targets and that win meant we’d completed the first one,” Nolan said. “But when you played for Sam you knew it was never about sitting still or going backwards, it was always ‘what’s the next one’ and what could we get from the next set of games.
“We knew that win at United was a big result for the fans but it wouldn’t have meant anything if we hadn’t stayed in the division that season.”
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