Mickey Blue Eyes
Saturday's game at the Reebok Stadium was Wuthering Heights at a Pennines Lancashire base camp on a cold, drizzly and murky day...real Bronté weather, players slip-sliding everywhere. The footy was a near-perfect complement to the Northern myth. David Moyes was an angry Heathcliff, Owen Coyle a pasty-faced, knobbly-kneed, haunted Cathy. There were times when you felt you might be up on the moors hunting through a cloying mist for the Hound of the Baskervilles. Full blooded entertainment was in short supply.
Bolton's home ground is a classic antidote to the deluded "Good Old Days" nonsense and myths that bedevil football. It is a "new" stadium opened in 1997 during their return to the top level for the first time in eighteen years. It is an admirable replacement for Burnden Park, a ground synonymous with 1970s-1980s decay of the game, a venue that deteriorated so much in its later years it actually had a supermarket built half way across its largest area of standing terraces in the Railway End, also the scene of a 1946 disaster when thirty-three people were killed and hundreds injured in a crowd crush. Those of us who visited Burnden know just how awful and dangerous that area of it was, a terrace in two angles, the rear much steeper than the front - thus accelerating spectator bodies downward in a crush. It became a dreadful place, a real slum. In Bolton's first full season in the Premier League in the all-seater Reebok their average league gate was 24,352, their highest average in thirty-seven years. They were promptly relegated for three seasons before coming back up again in 2002, since when their average has never dropped below 20,000. Without the Reebok there can be no question Bolton would be languishing in the nether world of the Football League, a position they may yet occupy anyway. In fact they were in the old fourth division as late as 1988. New ground or no new ground, there are no guarantees, as Newcastle and others found out the hard way.
Saturday was typical of why we have an instinctive feel for football. Go through a full calendar of Brit footy and you experience everything of summer, autumn, winter and spring; the game seems stitched into the natural climatic rhythm. Sometimes winter cold can even invigorate a match. Alas, this game didn't amount to much until superior numbers began to tell in the last twenty minutes or so. We were again without Jack Rodwell, Phil Neville, Sylvain Distin and Royston Drenthe. In their place whoever we had left in the squad. Which meant Bily got a start. For us it was a satisfying if untidy 2-0 win that took us to eighth, while Bolton fell into the bottom three. As always, the margin is a small one.
Only three things distinguished the first half: two missed efforts at the Bolton goal - both due to Seamus's persecution of their left back - and a deserved sending off of a Wanderers player for studs-up on Bily after twenty minutes. Some thought this an ironic reflection of Felli's Goodison dismissal last season. There really isn't very much else to be said for the half except for the stoic aggression of Seamus Coleman and Tim Cahill and relative (and I do mean relative, friends) cohesion of a team plainly in painful transition. Bolton had a reasonable opening but quickly became dispirited after the sending off. You just wanted to wrap your hands around a cup of something hot during half time. The rain was incessant and had players all over the place the moment they broke into a run. In the conditions it was remarkable anybody could kill and pass at all, so nobody was inclined to try anything unusual. Hence a dreary stalemate.
The second half was different and better, but not by much. Once Felli scored after five minutes it was never really in doubt. It was just a matter of how many. The goal was smart enough, though, and came down the left where Bainsey had a joyous time for most of the half. The ball got fed through from him via Leon to Bily wide left, tight on the touchline, and he hit in a murderous ground cross that took out three defenders, and Felli side footed it home at centre of the goal area. Simples. After that Bolton only had one real breakaway which Tim Howard spread well for and saved with his body.
Chances came and went for Our Boys. Seamus cut in for the umpteenth time, all the way to right of the D, and hit a left footed shot that was on its way till it got deflected. Then a nice switch move originated with a tackle won by Johnny in our half, left side, then he stuck a through ball to Tim, slightly centre right in their half. Louis scissored left for, and received, a perfectly weighted pass that took him left of the D before he got closed down and got off only a half shot. Then a right side corner zoomed in to a centre mob, from whence came the waving hand of Kevin Davies and a clear penalty to everyone in the ground except the referee. A few minutes later Bainsey and Bily combined beautifully down the left and the Russki got over a superb air ball where Tim did his spring-heeled jack impression over a defender only for their 'keeper to make a good save from his classic downward header on his right.
With twenty minutes left Moyesy sent on Tolos Vellios for Louis. Five minutes later he got the second. The ball got played across the line midway in the enemy half, right-to-left, and ended up, where else, at Bainsey's feet. Another quite magnificent left-to-right long air ball, all of sixty metres to the right angle of the goal area. Tim volley-cushioned it back across the goal and Tolos stole in at the far post and buried it. Game over. Where would we be without the can-do Aussie? To further underpin the transition Moyesy also gave a few minutes of pitch/rain time to Magaye Gueye and Ross Barkley.
Next up, home to Stoke City and the Bash Street Kids. Oh what a joyful start to the winter.