Build up to Bolton

Friday 23 November 2001

From Ian McCulloch

The two games played against Bolton last season perfectly summed up the highs and lows of Fulham's march to the First Division Championship.

The first match saw the Whites at their peak. Playing at their own ground, Bolton, who were in third place and previously unbeaten, were just blown away. Fulham were unstoppable, notching up the ninth successive win of their incredible early-season run. The only real surprise of the game was that victory wasn't achieved by a considerably greater margin. The two-nil result, with both goals coming from Luis Boa Morte, did not adequately reflect the Whites superiority - one particular passing movement towards the end of the game that ended with a narrow miss from John Collins was just breathtaking.

At that time, Fulham looked to be the perfect team as they swept all before them. No other side came close to matching their passing, their work rate, their fitness, or in particular, their goal scoring prowess. Pundits, opposition managers, and bookies all conceded the title to the Whites, and it was confidently predicted that the title would be wrapped up by Christmas. "On that performance Fulham looked like Champions already," said Bolton boss Sam Allardyce.

The return match at the Cottage was a different story. The second half of the season had turned into something more of a struggle, Fulham finding fluent football more difficult to come by as teams, having learned their lessons, closed games down, got men behind the ball and worked for the draw as though their lives depended on it. Bolton that day represented everything that is negative and counter-productive about modern day football, confronting enterprising play with dour, destructive tactics and frequently crossing the line between the legal and illegal. I had carried a dislike of the Wanderers from my early days of watching Fulham and this match only confirmed my feelings.

Bolton took a ninety-minute battering, scored from their only shot on target after being awarded an extremely dubious free-kick, and generally rode their luck as balls hit the woodwork, were cleared off the line or went narrowly wide. The most unpleasant part of the game was the way that Bolton targeted Boa Morte. Having seen him destroy them at the Reebok, the committed but volatile Portuguese international was subject to such physical and verbal intimidation that he eventually retaliated and was sent off. It was an appalling way to play the game.

The match ended one-one, Bolton went home celebrating as though they had won the Cup-Final, while Fulham were left to contemplate the vagaries of the beautiful game.

It brought back memories of the 1976-77 season. Once again it was Bolton who seemed to be our nemesis, as yet another false dawn for the Fulham faithful ended in tears. In a last desperate attempt to increase the poor attendance levels and guide a crop of promising youngsters back to the promised land of the First Division, manager Alex Stock had brought in George Best and Rodney Marsh to play alongside Bobby Moore. Fulham played Bolton no less than five times that season, and the infamous series of games in the League Cup were perhaps the first indication that things were not going to go as smoothly as everyone hoped.

After a two-two home draw in the September of that season, Fulham led two-one in the replay until Bolton equalised after something like eight minutes of extra-time. The Trotters went on to win the third game two-one at neutral St Andrews, but the damage was really done in that second game, with Bobby Moore's sending off for his protestations typifying the frustrations that were running through the team and Club as a whole.

Despite playing some devastating football, the results were just not coming. Fulham had won only two league games prior to the League Cup tie, and with the feeling that the whole world, and referee's in particular, were against them, the team spiralled downwards. George Best had been sent off against Southampton a couple of games previously for talking back to the referee after being kicked black and blue by the Saint's defence, and the dismissal of the normally unflappable Moore showed how far the cracks in the team's morale had reached.

Bolton were the opponents in the league two weeks later, and yet another two-one defeat sparked a depressing sequence of results. By Christmas, manager Alex Stock was gone. Bobby Campbell took over, but a run of twelve games without a win saw the Whites drop perilously close to the relegation zone. Bolton won again two-nil at the Cottage, and survival was only ensured in the last home game of the season with a victory over Orient.

By the summer of 1978, nineteen experienced players, including Best, Marsh and Moore, had gone, and the Club went into freefall. The only consolation of relegation to the lower reaches of the League was that we managed to avoid playing Bolton Wanderers for much of that time.

It was a wonderful result up at the result at the Reebok last season, and I would just love it if we could do it again. Somebody said last week that Fulham should watch out because Bolton have got Ricketts - let's hope they haven't started their vitamin D treatment yet!

Finally, in the Daily Telegraph Fantasy Football page last week, there was a table showing the most transferred out players. At number one was Louis Saha. I just hope that the 15, 601 miserable unbelievers who got rid of him enjoyed his wonder-goal last week. As someone who has kept the faith with our golden-haired striker, I would enjoy a hat trick from him against Bolton even more.