Bolton’s glory days and how Sam Allardyce signed cult heroes from Okocha to Campo

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In the first of our ‘Glory Days’ series looking back at successful periods in recent club’s histories, ex-defender Nicky Hunt reflects on Bolton’s golden period in the mid-2000s

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Sam Allardyce dreams of managing Manchester United

A whole generation of football fans may only know Bolton Wanderers as being one of the many yo-yo clubs that exist within the EFL.

After all, the club have been promoted or relegated six times in the past decade. But for many supporters, the mention of Bolton will undoubtedly cast their mind back to their 11-season run in the Premier League that began in the 2000s and saw them regularly finish in the top half, reach a major cup final and enjoy more than a few European trips away.

They truly were halcyon days for Wanderers.

Nicky Hunt was there for the whole rollercoaster of emotions. He made his debut in the season Bolton sealed promotion to the Premier League in 2001 and would go on to make more than 120 appearances in the top flight as well as appear countless times during their two spells playing in the UEFA Cup.

The man behind Bolton’s terrific golden period was undoubtedly manager Sam Allardyce. He spent eight years in the hotseat and for Hunt, remains the mastermind behind that special period for the Trotters.

“He had an aura. He was a man to be reckoned with but he was incredibly approachable which I found helpful as a young lad,” Hunt tells Mirror Football.

“He was direct in what he wanted from each player, but also how players behaved away from the pitch. He had a presence about him where if you did something wrong, he’d let you know. It was sink or swim in a way but also, and I do not think he gets enough credit for this, he was ahead of his time. He used all kinds of stats, such as physical stats, psychological stats. -therapy chamber.






After progressing through the youth team, Nicky Hunt became a Premier League regular for Bolton

“This was around the time when Arsenal had won the league and were doing similar things. Sam obviously saw it and must have there was something in this and the owner and chairman invested a lot of money in it. But it paid off, because of the amount of times we finished in the top half in the Premier League over those years.

“It was unheard of for such a small club.”

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Over four consecutive seasons from 2004 to 2007 Bolton finished in the top eight, with the 2004-05 campaign seeing them finish sixth – just one win shy of an unthinkable Champions League spot that year.






Sam Allardyce led Bolton to consistent top-half finishes in the Premier League

They did still manage European football, qualifying for the UEFA Cup in 2006 and 2008. Those two adventures were full of stories which Hunt looks back on with pride, including an eye-raising win over Atletico Madrid and a superb 2-2 draw away at Bayern Munich.

But one particular game, in 2007, stands out for Hunt. Bolton were facing Red Star Belgrade amidst political upheaval in Serbia.






The late Gary Speed ​​leads his Bolton team through the tunnel during a UEFA Cup game against Red Star Belgrade in 2007

“It was great in those European games, playing away at Sporting Lisbon, Atletico Madrid,” he added. “But I remember once we went to Red Star Belgrade and played in one of the most hostile atmospheres I’ve ever played under.

“We had the army taking us out of the changing room because there had been a big political break-out literally days before the game was scheduled. We had security guards around us at all times, flares were getting chucked on the pitch. It was just incredibly hostile but we got the result – it was a 1-0 win I think, thanks to a goal from Gavin McCann. “






Jay Jay Okocha was a huge fans’ favorite at Bolton

During his long stay at Bolton, Hunt had the privilege to play alongside some truly world-class players such as Ivan Campo, Youri Djorkaeff and the inimitable Jay-Jay Okocha.

Those marquee signings, albeit at the tail end of their careers rather than the peak, all slotted in seamlessly to aid the club’s unlikely run of success. Spanish veteran Fernando Hierro only spent one season at Wanderers but left a huge impression on Hunt.

“Okocha was brilliant, with his passing range and tricks – but as an entire package Hierro is the best I played with, I’d have to say. He wasn’t there long but his whole aura, his professionalism and experience was invaluable. He was really approachable but also really interested in how we lot came through the academy and our individual stories.He showed what a first class guy he was.






Fernando Hierro’s only season at Bolton, in 2004-05, saw him play a big part in them finishing sixth in the Premier League

“We weren’t under any illusions – most of these players were coming towards the end of their careers rather than being in their peek. But the likes of Ivan, Youri and Jay-Jay were great and what Sam did was go and fly out personally to meet them.

“I do not think they would have signed without that personal touch. They must have felt really wanted by that. As a 19-year-old kid it was great for me to be sat in that dressing room watching whatever rituals they do, and see how they prepare. “

Like all teams, Bolton’s eventually ran out of steam and appeared to reach the end of its cycle. Allardyce left Bolton with three games left of the 2006-07 season. Although Sammy Lee guided them to seventh in his absence, the club would not post another top-half finish in the Premier League and were relegated in 2012.






Nicky Hunt believes it is no coincidence that when Sam Allardyce left as Bolton boss the club’s form went downhill

Reflecting on how the end of such a prosperous period coincided with Allardyce’s exit, Hunt added: “We finished top seven or top eight four seasons on the bounce which is a massive achievement for Bolton. But when Sam did leave it did go downhill. There’s no ifs or buts about it.

“No matter who the manger was or what players got brought in, it was never going to beat those standards we set between 2002 and 2007. It just wasn’t there. One, the money wasn’t there. And two, we didn ‘t have the people in place to go and recruit the players either.

“But that period before was just a fantastic time to be in and around the club.”

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