There is no denying that this weekend’s Manchester derby/FA Cup semi-final hybrid super-match will dominate the media’s attention. Ironically, the omission of both Rooney and Tevez has already ensured discussion on the possible outcome has started prematurely.
But despite what you may read, or certainly infer from your daily chin wag with your City or United supporting buddy, the game remains a semi-final and not actually the FA Cup final. So, that would mean there is another one: Bolton versus Stoke.
For me, this represents a contest between one of the most progressive teams in the league, against one of the more traditional.
People seem to like Stoke City. They have one of those endearing and relatable ‘what-you-see-is-what-you-get’ head coaches (much like Spurs or Blackpool) who conducts himself in the same way as perhaps your fun uncle or pub landlord might. They consistently ‘punch above their weight’ in the Premier League (is it Premier League or Premiership? I never know) and apparently have the league’s loudest support. Add this to the novel and unique entertainment of watching someone who can throw the ball really really far and what is there not to like? They also sometimes play Ricardo Fuller.
But progressive, they are not.
Under Sam Allardyce, Bolton Wanderers rapidly earned themselves a reputation for playing ugly football which was often criticized for being ‘too direct’. They also kept using this style to beat Arsenal which apparently also wasn’t acceptable.
So, what about that is particularly progressive? Well, blink and you’ll miss it, because in the midst of this, big Sam also signed Ivan Campo, Jay Jay Okotcha, Fredi Bobic, Youri Djorkaeff and Nicolas Anelka, all of whom proved remarkably successful. That last bit is important.
Despite Big Sam’s perceived negativity and less than thrilling interview style, the way he and his team came across was not accurately representative of the club’s greater philosophy. The signings Sam made, as well as the ones he tried to make, are evidence of a culture and tradition at Bolton Wanderers of positive risk-taking, a tradition which has continued into their current regime.
On January 8th 2010, Bolton appointed Owen Coyle as their new manager. Three weeks later, he had signed young Arsenal prodigy on loan for the rest of the season and ten days later he started his first game. Jack Wilshire returned to Arsenal for the 2010/2011 season and is now considered to be one of Europe’s outstanding young midfielders. This is not a coincidence. A year later, Coyle tried a similar trick, this time with Chelsea. Bizarely, he succeeded in capturing another young English talent in 21-year-old Daniel Sturridge, again for the rest of the season. He proceeded to score three goals in his first three games and now has six in eight.
Bolton have ‘gambled’ on both aging superstars and unproven raw talent. On both occasions they appear to have won. Far from being a team who is clinging on to their Premier League status, they are a team who are seeking to match their creativity with ambition and ultimately success. Regardless of the outcome, I hope Fabio Cappello finds himself a Bolton supporter on Sunday, for they have made, and will hopefully continue to make his job an awful lot easier.