A Little History Lesson.
On Thursday March 13th 2008 Bolton travelled to the port city of Lisbon to take on Sporting in the second leg of the UEFA Cup, following a 1-1 draw at The Reebok the week before. Needing a goal to progress further in the competition, manager Gary Megson decided to leave seven first team regulars at home in preparation for a relegation tussle with Wigan Athletic the following Sunday. Of the team that travelled to Lisbon there were six full internationals, two, at the time, current under 21 internationals and a player who is now priced at between £15million and the equivalent of the total national debt of the United Kingdom, depending on which paper you read. Bolton lost to an 85th minute goal, but as they had needed a goal anyway this made little difference. A decidedly second rate Lisbon team continued to the quarter finals where they were summarily despatched by Glasgow Rangers.
In the game against Wigan Athletic, despite making nine changes to the team, with only the goalkeeper and the £15million player retained, and despite Wigan being reduced to ten men just four minutes into the game, Bolton contrived to lose 1-0. At this point, the little goodwill that some supporters had for the managerial regime evaporated forever and despite him winning a manager of the month award the season after, there was little chance of Gary Megson ever winning them back.
On Sunday April 25 2010, Fulham travelled to the port city of Liverpool to take on Everton in the Premier League, four days before their Europa League semi final second leg against Hamburg, following a 0-0 draw the previous Thursday. Needing a goal to progress further in the competition, manager Roy Hodgson decided to leave nine first team regulars at home in preparation for the tussle with Hamburg. Of the team that travelled to Merseyside there were seven full internationals, two current under 21 internationals and a player who, when he signs for the team from Trafford Park, will probably be priced at between £15million and the equivalent of the total national debt of the United Kingdom. Fulham lost to a 94th minute goal, but as they were already mid table this didn’t really matter one jot as they had a far more important game on Sunday.
In the game against Hamburg, after making nine changes to the team, with only the goalkeeper and a central defender retained, Fulham came from behind to win 2-1. At this point, the goodwill that supporters from virtually every club in England had for the managerial regime at Fulham overflowed and he was mentioned for every managerial job from Liverpool to England. Even if Roy Hodgson is now implicated in the death of Dodi and Diana there is the very real possibility that Mr Al-Fayed will forgive him.
There is very little difference between Fulham and Bolton. They came up from Division One in the same season and both have had fluctuating experiences in the Premier League since. Both have flirted with relegation, both have been in Europe twice. Despite Al-Fayed`s money, don`t be deceived that they have more money to spend than Bolton. Yet the two managers reactions to when the European competition got to the meat end are so disparate they might as well have been playing a different game. To Bolton it was a hindrance, something to be avoided at all costs as it got in the way of Premier League survival. To Fulham it was something to be embraced, to bring the fans and players together in a journey that could culminate in a triumph that anyone and everyone, Fulham fan or not, would never have envisaged when they played their first game at the end of July last year.
That`s ten months ago. And it is this time frame that makes the most damning indictment of Bolton`s capitulation two seasons ago. By the time Fulham knocked out Juventus in the round of 16 they had played their forty-eighth game of the season. At the comparative round in 2007-08 Bolton had played forty one. Premier League players of comparable quality to the Bolton squad of 2007-08 have managed to crawl their way to the final partly through grim determination, partly through the goodwill of the fans and partly through the tactical nous of the manager. In a different time not too long ago, Bolton players who you would not have expected to battle for Premier League survival did just that, partly through grim determination, partly through the goodwill of the fans and partly through the tactical nous of the manager. All these things were missing in Bolton`s last sojourn in Europe to date.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. There is no saying that a full strength team would have gone to Lisbon and won. There is no saying that even if they had they would have beaten Rangers, although if they had the residents of Manchester City Centre would have been grateful. The fact that a full strength team lost to a ten man team on a pudding pitch three days later has always been a stick to beat Gary Megson with. But hindsight grants us the right to notice deficiencies and that Fulham have managed to go where Bolton feared to tread is just another reason for any Bolton fan to wipe his brow and be glad that, although we took the bullet, the wound wasn`t fatal.