Bolton Wanderers fans will need little reminder that Mark Davies’s potential was unfortunately never realised – but former team-mate Robbie Blake claims injury cost him a mega-money move in his prime.
Through nearly eight years at Bolton, Davies’s name was rarely far away from the transfer gossip columns.
A £5million bid from Swansea was rebuffed shortly after the club was relegated from the Premier League and the midfielder was persistently linked with Liverpool during Brendan Rodgers’ time at Anfield.
But in picking the former Wolves man out as the most talented player he had ever played alongside, Blake revealed that he came close to a move to Stamford Bridge.
“Without any stretch of the imagination he’s the best player I have ever played with,” he said on the Undr The Cosh podcast. “But he was worse than me off the field.
“He was signed, sealed, delivered to go to Chelsea with Mourinho. He had a year or six months left on his contract and he agreed a deal to go to Chelsea but did his cruciate two weeks before he was due to go.”
Still only 32, Davies effectively retired from football after leaving the club in May 2017 and is understood to be working in property development in the Midlands.
He played 208 times for Wanderers, scoring 16 goals, and had worked his way on to the fringes of the England Under-21 set-up in his early days in the North West.
But Blake says the midfielder’s professionalism – coupled with a list of tragic knee injuries - prevented him from ever quite getting as far in the game as he should.
“Sparky was insane,” he said. “You’d come into training with him at Bolton and he was one of those players who could get the ball off the goalkeeper, dribble past six players and put a goal in.
“The next day he’d hide on the left wing and you’d know he’d been out until five or six in the morning.
“He was an incredible player. And I am not saying it to be funny but at every club I have been to there hasn’t been that many players who are technically better than me but he was, by a million miles.”
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Blake’s own Bolton career was brief. Recruited by his former Burnley boss Owen Coyle in the summer of 2010 he was a popular figure behind the scenes in a convivial dressing room.
Already a veteran by the time he arrived at the Reebok, Blake played only a bit part in two seasons with the club and admits he looks back and wonders whether he made the right decision leaving Turf Moor.
Burnley director Brendan Flood tried to convince him to stay with he Clarets, who had been relegated into he Championship, but Blake felt uncomfortable playing under Coyle’s successor, Brian Laws.
“I couldn’t physically stay at Burnley while Brian Laws was manager,” he said.
“People think I already had a contract with Owen Coyle at Bolton, I didn’t.
“I just thought after what had happened that year I could still get a decent club.
“I was 35, Brendan (Flood) met me at the Worsley Marriott and said he thought I was making a big mistake. But I didn’t think they were getting out of the Championship with that mug in charge, he wasn’t good enough.
“I do regret leaving because I didn’t want to go to Bolton if I am brutally honest.
“They were flying, had really good players, but I’d been around a few places and I was back where I felt I belonged. You always know when you are happy as a footballer, but I couldn’t stay.”
Blake - who is now a coach at Bognor Regis - still looks back at the Bolton squad and wonders how it managed to drop out of the top flight.
“We had a proper team – Elmander, Davies up front,” he said. “I was the second-oldest player behind Ryan Giggs in the Premier League. I was thinking ‘you’ve done alright here Blakes.’ “We had Stu Holden, Fabrice Muamba, Martin Petrov, Sparky, Sturridge – we were sixth in the Premier League with about 10 games to go. We were on the verge of doing something massive.
“And then that team once we’d lost Holden, who got the massive knee injury against Manchester United, Elmander left and Fabrice wasn’t the same, obviously. That team ended up getting relegated – it was mad.”
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The unavoidable after-effects of Muamba’s collapse at White Hart Lane were one of the telling factors in Bolton’s relegation.
His collapse in March and miraculous recovery triggered a brief upturn in form but the club was unable to haul themselves away from the bottom three for long, eventually succumbing to the drop on the final day at Stoke City's Britannia Stadium.
Blake recalls the mental strain that Muamba's episode had on the team at the time - even though his team-mate's story had a happy ending.
“I wasn't involved in the team but it was scary at the time,” Blake said. “Fab is such a great lad and it’s good to see he’s made a recovery.
“Things like that put things in perspective. You think ‘I could have done this, or that’ but he died on a football field, so just be happy with what you have done.
“We didn’t go in until the Friday, I think, and he was down in London.
“It was a bit all over the place and you couldn’t really function. There were so many graphic things that the players had seen.
“Fab was a great lad – still is – and you build that camaraderie with people, get attached to them, so to see that happen was incredible.
“People can’t fathom it, think you should get on with it. I know he came back to life but even when someone gets a serious bad leg injury it knocks you as a player.
“The mind is the most powerful thing you have got, and it plays with you.”
Blake revealed how his own career spiralled after leaving Wanderers in the summer of 2012.
He signed a contract with Doncaster Rovers in League One but was undergoing personal problems off the pitch, including a gambling addiction.
“I was all over the place after that, going through a divorce, and from a mental point of view I was done,” he recalled.
“Even when I signed for Donny, first day back in pre-season, I was in the Viper Rooms in Harrogate on the Sunday night until about half four, bladdered with red wine.
“I was waking up in the afternoon with about 14 missed calls from Dean Saunders asking ‘where are you?’ “It’s not right. I was gone. There was nothing there.”
The gambling became such an issue that Blake says there were times when he didn’t even return home after training with Doncaster.
“I was playing in high stakes casinos in Leeds,” he said.
“There were days training at Donny where I’d leave training, you’d have a bit of banter and food, say half one – I’d go straight into the casino, stay there all the way through the night and then leave at half seven in the morning to go and train. I hadn’t slept!
“I felt bad because I was letting people down.”
Nowadays, Blake is in a better position thanks to help from the PFA with his addictions.
But he admits that during his playing days he would have found it difficult to face up to the problem.
“I sought help, I had to, and it has been a long journey,” he said. “But it has been a good one. The PFA were a massive help for me – but the good thing is there is help there for the addictions, whereas there wasn’t when I was coming through. There wasn’t the help and support.
“It’s great players have got that now.
“But thinking back - I don’t think I was in a state where anyone could have helped me when I was playing.
“About five or six years ago the penny dropped.
"Until you actually understand it and realise it yourself, you can have the best advice ever, but until your mind is physically ready to take the challenge on you are not going to do it without the best help.”
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