It was 6.45pm in the bowels of Wembley Stadium, Wanderers captain Kevin Davies is led into a small grey room to speak about the worst 90 minutes of his professional career.
Sitting down on a red chair just inside the door he answers questions from the local media with none of the warmth we had come to expect, his gaze fixed on a breezeblock wall behind which Owen Coyle was delivering a similar debrief to the national media.
Davies had suffered FA Cup semi-final defeat before, losing as a Chesterfield player against Middlesbrough in 1997. But that had been heroic failure and a game that had helped launch his career, this was an outright embarrassment. And he didn’t hide it well.
Coyle’s apologetic appraisal carried through into the room from the media amphitheatre but there was absolutely nothing Davies or the manager could say that would make Bolton’s fans feel any better about what they just witnessed.
Grimsby Town were the last club beaten by five goals in the semi-final of an FA Cup. And they only had to travel as far as Old Trafford.
Here, 30,000 Bolton Wanderers fans had journey down to the capital not just in hope, but expectation.
The passing of club legend Nat Lofthouse in January had added a touch of nostalgia to this cup run, which had begun with a scrappy victory against York City and peaked – it would turn out – with Chung-Yong Lee’s memorable late winner at Birmingham City.
Whether the blinkered belief had passed on to the players it is difficult to say but the build-up to the game had been more akin to a pre-season tour than a prestige event against a Premier League rival.
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Coyle had been successful at Wembley before. As a player he helped Bolton beat Reading in the play-off final and as a manager he did the same with Burnley against Sheffield United. Ever the superstitious one, he was determined to follow a similar path and took his players down to Wembley the Tuesday before the game.
The manager had meant the team bonding trip to help calm nerves but many senior players felt it unnecessary, especially as it came at the expense of time at the training ground.
“I didn’t agree with it,” Davies told The Bolton News. “I spoke with the manager at the time and suggested the time could be better used.
“We went down there for a walk round and then had some dinner with a couple of drinks.
“Whether that had an effect on the game, you can only really say with hindsight now. But I know from speaking with people like Danny Higginbotham, who was at Stoke at the time, that Tony Pulis had them in doing double sessions and working on shape to beat us.”
The players’ concerns proved entirely warranted. Pulis may have his detractors but on this afternoon his team sniffed out Bolton’s main threats and nullified them completely.
Davies was double-marked, Chung-Yong and Martin Petrov isolated on the wings, and auxiliary midfielder Johan Elmander given an early leveller to put him out of his stride.
Stoke dropped Jonathan Walters deep to leave Gary Cahill and Zat Knight fighting between themselves to mark the muscular Kenwyne Jones and the extra space allowed wide men Matty Etherington and Jermaine Pennant free reign.
While Wanderers’ tactical ineptitude on the day is easy to pick over now, it must also be said that Stoke enjoyed a day where every single shot they attempted seemed to hit the back of the net.
Three down after 30 minutes, the game was won before fans had a chance to buy an overpriced half-time Wembley pint.
Coyle tried to fix things in the second half by introducing Matty Taylor and Mark Davies and bringing Elmander back up front but without the cup-tied Daniel Sturridge the team looked toothless.
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The party continued for Stoke’s fans but many Boltonians were already en route back to the North West.
In its infinite wisdom, The Bolton News had planned a 16-page supplement to celebrate Wanderers’ triumph but, unsurprisingly, few of Coyle’s squad were willing to stop and discuss the afternoon’s events.
Gary Cahill stopped in Wembley’s hectic mixed zone, as did Gretar Steinsson, to his credit. Stoke’s hero Walters also took pity on a Bolton journalist getting increasingly desperate to fill column inches.
And if in doubt – we were also able to call on our columnists at the time, John McGinlay and Tony Kelly, who didn’t hold back with their assessment.
Staggering out into the dusk, last ones out of the press room, myself and Liam Chronnell (God bless his soul) walked back down a deserted Wembley Way, passing dozens of Bolton scarves and flags which had been abandoned in disgust.
The inquest into the result lasted weeks, and even though Bolton produced a response of sorts by beating Arsenal in their next outing, adrenaline quickly vanished. A team that was sixth in the Premier League table when they beat Aston Villa on March 5 to reach 40 points, lost their final five games and finished a place below Stoke in 14th.
A year later, at Stoke, no less, they were relegated from the top-flight after an 11-year stay.
It is too simple to blame one cup defeat for the club’s deterioration, which has continued almost unchecked to this day, and it is perhaps just as pertinent to point to the March 19 defeat at Old Trafford in which Bolton’s talismanic midfielder Stu Holden was stretchered off, never to play at the same standard again.
Both events triggered a period of navel gazing that continued right through the next season. Wanderers would suffer further hardships – injuries to key stars like David Wheater, Chung-Yong and Mark Davies, plus Fabrice Muamba’s unfortunate retirement – and the mood inside the camp would never again feel quite the same.
Did Wanderers feel too sorry for themselves after that day at Wembley? Nine years on, and staring League Two football in the face, it is a fair question to ask.
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