The Most Important Game in History
Date: Thursday 26th March 2009
What's the most important match in Bolton Wanderers' long history? Ask a lot of fans now and they'll probably go for something like the playoff final at Wembley against Reading, maybe they'd even go for some victory over Man Urinals at Old Trafford or a cup win against Liverpool. Sure, while those matches have a place in the character of the club... all of them pale in comparison to the game against Wrexham in 1988.
At the close of the '86-'87 season, Bolton Wanderers were relegated to the old Fourth Division. It was the first time in Bolton Wanderers' history that we'd languished so low. At one stage of the season, we were as low as 16th. That season, Torquay United did the double over us. Things were bleak and fans all over the Bolton area were going off and supporting other clubs. Things were so bad that, on the opening day of the season against Crewe, the most exciting match of the year, a paltry 4,792 showed up at Burden Park. And fans think we've got it bad now!
Things were generally weird in '88. Hooliganism was beginning to be replaced with a more positive atmosphere, thanks in large to the change in recreational weekend drugs. Speed, which makes you anxious and aggressive was being replaced with ecstasy and the soundtrack to the youth could be found in the warehouses of Lancashire and The Potteries. Wimbledon were weeks away from winning one of the most famous FA Cup finals in history.
The build up to the final game of the season was going well. In our last ten games of the season, we'd only lost one, against promotion rivals Swansea. We'd also dished out a drubbing to Newport, 6-0, with a hat-trick from John Thomas and goals coming from Trevor Morgan, Mark Winstanley and Steve Thompson (surely one of Bolton's lost greats?). Scunthorpe, vying for an automatic spot, mercifully drew games they should have won, giving the Bolton faithful a whiff of hope. They'd slipped up. Could we capitulate and make a gain?
A 4-0 hammering dished out to Colchester at Burnden Park in our last home game of the season left us with our destiny in our own hands. All we had to do was beat Wrexham away, and we were up. We'd beaten them 2-0 earlier in the season... this was doable. Bolton were bouncing back.
In a thrilling encounter in the glorious sunshine, the game ebbed and flowed. After 30 minutes, disaster struck as Wrexham were awarded a penalty kick. Were we to fall into the lottery of the play-offs? Wrexham missed the chance to take the lead, which set the tone for the game with both sides squandering chance after chance. However, Phil Neal's side weren't done yet. Wanderers legend, Robbie Savage decided the game with a cracker, which sent the game into a frenzy. Robbie Savage hit the post from a free kick, which could have sealed all three, but luck was on our side as the ref blew the final whistle. A pitch invasion greeted the brave boys in white.
Our first flirtation in the bottom rung was lesson enough to the club. Never again would we go there. Phil Neal continued to build on the promotion, eventually making way for Bruce Rioch in 1992, who return us all to the arms of the top flight. Now, after a brief yo-yo, we find ourselves eight years strong in the Premiership. If the game against Wrexham had gone any other way, it's hard to imagine things recovering. We could've been Yet Another Big Club in the lower leagues. We could be still playing the likes of Tranmere and Notts County week-in, week-out.
Thanks to Robbie Savages goal in Wales, we've been on the road to Munich and Madrid, lead by Rioch through some of the greatest giant-killings in FA Cup history. Without our victory in Wrexham, the alternative doesn't bear thinking about. Take stock. Drink it in. You may not remember the game... you may not have even been born... but that doesn't mean you should recognise our achievement to be where we are right now. A club in a healthy position, a club playing in the best league in the world.