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Bolton Nuts » BWFC » Bolton Wanderers Banter » Mars Bars and misery: The rise and fall of Owen Coyle's Wanderers

Mars Bars and misery: The rise and fall of Owen Coyle's Wanderers

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse
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For just a little while, Wanderers had it right.

An enterprising team powered into 2010 challenging for Europe and with a midfield quartet that could match anything the Premier League had to offer.

Owen Coyle was one of the hottest managerial properties around and his team were at the peak of their powers. Bolton was cool once again and had found a new messiah after the post-Sam Allardyce mess.

At the heart of it all, Stu Holden, an American midfielder snapped up from the relative obscurity of Houston Dynamo for virtually nothing, a bright young man who boasted the perfect smile and winning attitude on which Wanderers could build this bright new future.

Alongside him the technically-brilliant Korean, Chung-Yong Lee, the industrious Fabrice Muamba and the dynamite left foot of Martin Petrov, not to mention the supplementary talents of Mark Davies and Matty Taylor.

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By the close of 2010, the Whites had hammered Newcastle United 5-1 and beaten Big Sam’s Blackburn Rovers at the Reebok with a Holden winner two minutes from time, a script which could not have been worded any better by a die-hard supporter.

But if momentum had been built quickly for Coyle and Co amid that exciting wave of bonhomie and perfect soundbites, creating the image of a club that could do no wrong, the violent and shocking way their fortunes went into reverse was 10 times as dramatic.

Exactly a year later Bolton were bottom of the table. Chung-Yong had broken his leg in a meaningless friendly at Newport, and the gloss had been stripped from Coyle’s managerial CV by an embarrassing FA Cup semi-final defeat against Stoke – leaving people to question every aspect of his job.

Muamba would be forced to retire after he went into cardiac arrest in an FA Cup clash at Tottenham.

And Bolton fans will need no reminder of what happened to Holden on March 19, 2011, a reckless tackle from Manchester United’s Jonny Evans which left him looking directly into his knee joint and setting in motion a series of injuries that would eventually account for his playing career.

It is no wonder that the 34-year-old, now a polished TV presenter in his own right with Fox Sports, struggles to mention the former United player’s name without adding an obscenity.

He remains protective of Coyle – the man who initially brought him to Burnley from Houston in the winter of 2009 before agreeing to take over at Bolton and bringing the American in on his first day of training.

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Whereas Coyle’s training methods and tactical prowess have been questioned and analysed to the nth degree by Bolton fans as they watched their team’s rapid decline, Holden is keen to remind people of just how good the team was before all that misfortune.

“I have a soft spot for Coyley because he believed in me and gave me opportunities,” he said.

“He is not a tactical coach, I think everybody who has followed the club and saw the matches would say that, he’s not out there doing X and O detailed game-plans, he was a motivator that pushed the right buttons and developed a camaraderie. From the outside that is perceived as a bad thing when things are not going well.

“When you were one of his guys, you were one of his guys. He would get the most out of it.

“Going back to 2010 when I got injured we were seventh in the league. And that isn’t by chance.

“We were pulling off late wins, Johan (Elmander) was scoring, Kevin Davies was scoring, Ivan (Klasnic) was scoring off the bench, you had Fab (Muamba), myself, Gaz Cahill – I’m OK with all that table tennis stuff because I’m a team guy. Building team culture and one that fosters a winning environment is a good thing.

“Did I come in and learn a lot about football? Probably not.

“I’d say when I went back with the US I worked with Bob Bradley, who had a short stint in England, and he was one of the best coaches I ever had. He taught me a lot.

“But then I’d come back to England where Owen thought he had a team that was good enough and players that were talented.

“Could we have done more on shape and patterns of play? Yes, of course, but at the same time I’d buzz off playing seven-a-sides for a Mars Bar or a can of Irn Bru. And he’d always be in the finishing drills with you because he just loved the game of football.

“It was a shame how it finished up because if we had finished that season in a good spot in the Premier League we’d have had more money to spend, it’s easy to look back and ask questions.”

Though Holden took the eye in the national press, the first half of the 2010/11 campaign saw nearly all of Coyle’s team hit their peak.

Cahill was one of the best young English defenders in the top flight, Kevin Davies had finally been given some international recognition by his country and the £8.2million Johan Elmander – hitherto a ‘flop’ – was now scoring the quality of goal that matched his price tag.

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“I genuinely believe that was a really good team,” Holden said.

“When we played the top sides we were brilliant. Against Manchester United we were seconds away if I hadn’t let my mark go and let Michael Owen equalise. I was gutted at that.

“We went toe to toe with the big sides. Gretar Steinsson when we played Spurs and he absolutely kicked Gareth Bale off the park – and that was a team with Modric and Crouch, a talented squad.

“I talk to Tim Howard or Clint Dempsey and US guys who were at English teams that year and they’d always tell me that playing against Bolton was such a difficult proposition, they could play direct and physical but when the ball was down on the ground we could keep it, move it, and there was bags of energy coming through the team. You never had a moment to breathe.”

“That midfield had such a nice balance to it and put Matt Taylor in there too, Mark Davies was such a talented player. Him and I spent a lot of time in the training room together because we couldn’t keep fit for a whole number of reasons.

“Myself, Fab Muamba, Chung-Yong Lee and Martin Petrov – I’d stack that up against any midfield in the Premier League at the time the way we were playing as a unit and our understanding of the way we wanted to play, the little combinations.

“I loved playing with Fab because he didn’t want to ball that much, he was happy doing the dirty work. And he’d almost get out of space so I could get into it and get the ball.

“We’d laugh looking at the stats because I’d have done twice the running and he’d say ‘stop wanting the ball so much then!’”

They say all good things must come to an end, but even now the speed at which things deteriorated for Coyle and Bolton is baffling.

Some attribute the decline to Holden’s injury against United, or the Stoke defeat a month later. But rather than dwell on the months of rehab, the crushing disappointments of four torn ACLs, or his retirement in 2016 – all topics the American covers in honest detail in his podcast with the Lion of Vienna Suite – this article will finish on a high note.

What might be the most re-played Bolton Wanderers GIF in history shows Holden latching on to Kevin Davies’s flick to score against Blackburn and send the Reebok into pandemonium.

A reminder of the better times, it is a memory Holden still cherishes wholeheartedly.

“That goal is still to date one of the best moments of my entire life, not just my football career,” he said.

“I’d just come back from a quad pull and only missed one game. For it to be a derby and the energy those kind of games have – Fab had scored, we went a man down.

“I remember being deflated when Diouf scored but running back thinking ‘come on this isn’t done yet.’ “The ball gets passed back, out to Sam Ricketts, I bomb forward. Kev Davies absolutely man-handles Ryan Nelsen – and that’s one of my favourite clips, him hitting the deck like a sack of potatoes.

“People would think he was 6ft 6ins by the way he plays. But he’s one of the best players I played with to use his body so effectively.

“Even though he’s a little off balance the perfectly cushioned header, flicks the ball into my path, and this moment I have replayed in my head, it’s all slow motion. It rolled off my chest on to my left foot and when the goal went in it was one of two moments in my football career that I essentially blacked out. I don’t remember the next 30 seconds, it was just a blur and I was running.

“The fans behind the goal were going nuts and I tried to stay on my feet but Matt Taylor grabbed me, next thing I know the lads are on top of me.

“I get up and then have that celebration with Paul Robinson. The big inside joke was that our kitman, Tony, was a bit heavier set and one time in an away game he went to put his sock on and fell over, kid of rolled to the side. That was us recreating his roll.

“Tony was laughing his head off because the lads would banter him all the time about it.”

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