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Up where they belonged: Remembering Bolton's promotion win at Blackburn

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse
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After 14 years in the wilderness, Wanderers were clinging on by their fingernails to a win at Blackburn which would send them back into the top-flight.

Thousands of Bolton fans had travelled over the hill to see whether after two years of agonising near-misses, Ian Greaves’s side could finally get over the line.

They led through Frank Worthington’s sweet left-footed strike but had been put under incessant pressure from Rovers, who were in no mood to be upstaged by Lancashire rivals on their own turf.

Cross after cross bombarded the Bolton box but then, with the referee looking at his watch, Whites defender Mike Walsh launched a clearance celebrated on the terraces like it was the winner in a Wembley final.

“We were really under the cosh,” he told The Bolton News. “It was getting tense and it was real backs to the wall defending at the end.

“But thinking back I had the last kick of the game. The ball had dropped to me in the penalty box and I just wanted to put it in orbit. I booted it so far it went out for a throw in their half.

“And the fans just erupted. It was like I’d scored a goal.”

After falling out of the top division in 1964 there had been some lean times for Bolton – financial issues at the end of the sixties and relegation to the third tier for the first time in the club’s history. But it had been under Jimmy Armfield that fortunes gradually turned, promotion as champions in 1972-73 was followed by consolidation, and his successor Greaves had come so desperately close.

Wanderers had finished fourth the previous two seasons, missing out by a single point to West Brom and Nottingham Forest, but this wasn’t a case of third time lucky. The super Whites had been the stand-out team all season and three days later would deservedly clinch the Second Division title with a goalless draw at Burnden against Fulham.

But that didn’t stop the hoard of Bolton fans who took the short trip to Ewood feeling any less apprehensive. They’d suffered bitter disappointment twice before and were taking nothing for granted.

A night of nervous tension turned into a night of celebration with the flamboyant Worthington – super hero of the Burnden terraces – the toast of the town as the partying went on well into the early hours.

Worthy, the Elvis-loving former England international with the playboy lifestyle, scored the only goal 33 minutes into that memorable match when he latched onto a gem of a pass from Roy Greaves before hitting a stunning left-footer across Rovers keeper John Butcher.

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But the nail-biting continued right up to the final whistle. Wanderers survived a major scare early on when John Radford’s header beat Jim McDonagh and bounced back off the post, but they were much the better side and when the Bolton keeper held a Jack Lewis header from Radford’s cross in the dying minutes, the fans hoped this would, after all, be their night.

“When that final whistle went, we were just euphoric,” recalled Walsh, the homegrown and versatile defender who didn’t miss a game in 77-78. “We were out in Maxwell’s Plum after the game and a lot of the lads hadn’t even bothered getting changed. They were still in their kit.

“The whole town celebrated that night because it had been hard.

“But I think the fact we’d missed out two just made it feel sweeter than if we’d been one season wonders. We’d missed out by such slender margins, to finally win it was fantastic.”

Inside the dressing room, the scenes were just as jubilant.

Tony Dunne – a League Championship and European Cup winner with Manchester United – said: “I’ve never been more pleased in all my career. I can’t say I felt any better winning any other trophy – it’s a great feeling”

Sam Allardyce revealed: “I couldn’t stop crying when the final whistle went. I can’t describe the feeling but it’s a wonderful end to three years of trying.”

And Worthington: “People said it was a gamble coming to a Second Division club, but I never thought of it that way. I just knew we were going to do it.”

Truly, the whole town needed this measure of success.

“The thing was,” Walsh explained, “back then we would know the people who were there watching us every week. The fans mixed with us, drank with us, so when we won, so did they.

“We used to have the Super Whites night in the Catholic Clubs or the Labour Club where you would socialise.

“And when we won the title at Burnden after the Fulham game there were fans in the dressing room, friends, and I remember one of them bringing in a big crate of Champagne.”

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The flamboyant Worthingon was 29 when he signed for Wanderers in a club record £90,000 deal from Leicester City but proved worth every penny as he fired 21 goals in all competitions in his first season.

Worthington has surprised some by dropping down a division at that stage of his career and though he arrived with a high profile, his room-mate Walsh reckons the former England international had no airs or graces.

“He was actually quite a quiet bloke,” he said. “But every day he’d come in wearing gear that was different from anyone else’s, different than anything you’d seen.

“He had that charisma but at heart he was just a down to earth guy.

“I think what made that team successful is that we were all mates. A lot of us had grown up together but then when the manager brought in players like Frank, Tony Dunne, Peter Thompson or Willie Morgan – who had been there and done it – they just slipped straight in. There were no big time Charlies.”

Walsh was ever-present in 77-78, his versatility as a centre-back, left-back or midfielder proving invaluable in what was a fairly slender squad.

He has no doubt, however, where Bolton drew their real power.

“I remember doing a coaching course and speaking to Graham Rix and he used to tell me how much he hated coming up to Burnden,” he said. “He’d complain about getting kicked off the pitch or ending up down the ditch.

“There was an aura about the place and teams just didn’t like coming there.”

Wanderers only lost once at home during their promotion push, and that was in the League Cup to Leeds United.

And though Walsh freely accepts Wanderers could dish it out, he believes the football Ian Greaves wanted to play was ahead of its time.

“He’d have us playing out from the back because we had the right players to do it,” he said. “We had Peter Thompson for a season and there’s no way on earth you find him lumping the ball, or Willie Morgan. Frank wasn’t going to run into the channels all day, if you played it to him, it would stick.

“The manager would tell you exactly what he wanted and then the players he brought in would adapt. You’d think the older ones who signed for Bolton were coming for a rest – but they most certainly didn’t.”

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I was there that evening.

I went with a bloke who owned the chippy near where I used to work at the time and he drove us to Blackburn, parked up somewhere and he said although he never been to Ewood before he'd driven passed it a few time and knew where it was, so I just followed him, as you would.

The thing is though is the Ewood is sited on the side of a river and the bloke not knowing that came in from the wrong direction!  There we were, kick off minutes away and us climbing through a field stood opposite the ground with the floodlights on and the crowds cheering (thousands of wanderers there that night), with a river between us and the ground!

We had to run up the side of the river, along the field, what seemed like miles before we found a bridge to cross then run all the way back!

I think we missed the kick off but only by a few minutes and ended up stood in a brilliant place to watch Worthington's goal as we could clearly see the shot going in and the keeper having no chances of stopping it before most others.  Fantastic experience and such happy memories.

It took us bloody hours to get back to the car though, turns out he'd unknowingly parked as far away from the ground as possible, no wonder there were loads of parking spaces when we arrived!

I'd waited all those years from us dropping out of the top tier in 1964 and we had finally made it back!

Shout out to Maxwell's Plum as well, spent many a happy night in there and seen the players drinking regularly in there too!

Frightening to think how long ago it was now.

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