FOOTBALL: 'Jiminho' ready for another day of reckoning

Colin Todd's side take on Chelsea with their Premiership status at stake tomorrow. Phil Shaw on a recurring cycle of rise and fall
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The Independent Online
IF A WEEK is a long time in politics then a decade in football is an eternity. Consider the changing fortunes since the Football League's centenary year of two founder members, Bolton Wanderers and Everton, and especially those of Bolton's Jimmy Phillips.

In 1988, when Bolton went into the season's last day needing to win at Wrexham to claim the final automatic promotion place from the old Fourth Division, Phillips could only watch from a distance. A year earlier he had been sold to Rangers to finance a futile attempt to stay up.

That same May, Everton, still nominally the League champions, were looking wistfully towards the European Cup final between Benfica and PSV Eindhoven and wondering what might have been. Among the few Englishmen to beat the post-Heysel ban that season had been Phillips, who was in Rangers' rearguard when they won in Kiev before a gathering of 100,000.

The narrowest of wins in Wales launched Bolton on the first step of what proved to be a rapid rise through the divisions. A similar success at Chelsea tomorrow would not only ensure their Premiership survival, but also negate any victory Everton might achieve at home to Coventry. One of the great "Super League" advocates would thus be relegated for the first time since Winston Churchill held the other premiership in 1951.

From Bolton's point of view, the drama is about more than a Lancashire town team striving to consolidate among the corporate elite and, indeed, sending one of their number down in the process.

Since they last tried to put down roots at the highest level, a one-season blunder in 1995-96, they have crossed the Rubicon (or rather the boundary with Horwich). After 102 years at Burnden Park, a real state-of-the-ark venue, they built the state-of-the-art Reebok Stadium.

Initially, the outcome of their struggle with Everton will be measured in human terms. Tears will flow and hearts grow heavy. But for Bolton, who spent pounds 35m on constructing a futuristic home for the new millennium, the cost of failure would also be counted in concrete, steel and plastic.

If they were to slip into the Nationwide League again, it might be expecting too much for Watford, Crewe or Port Vale to generate the same interest or revenue as Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United.

The current average gate, 24,500, is close to capacity. But for all the depth of feeling for the club and their traditions, Bolton are not Sunderland. The gleaming white citadel just off the M61 could become a white elephant.

Not that Colin Todd and his team are thinking negatively. They have won four of the last eight matches and are scoring freely. What is more, the fixtures seem to be falling into place nicely. Having received Crystal Palace five days after they were officially doomed, and duly dispatched them 5-2, Bolton sat back and watched Everton being taken apart at Arsenal's championship party.

Arduous though a finale at fourth-placed Chelsea may appear, their destiny is now in their own hands. Moreover, the London club's recent performances have led to Howard Kendall, the Everton manager, accusing them of playing "with their flip-flops on".

Kendall was no doubt trying to use a little psychology, Alex Ferguson- style. Nevertheless, his comments betray the not unreasonable fear that Chelsea will be soft-pedalling to conserve their energies for the Cup- Winners' Cup final 72 hours later.

Bolton's scramble for safety has produced some unlikely heroes. The defender Neil Cox picked Aston Villa, his former club, as the scene for his first goal for the club. It set up a surprise win which revived hope after defeats by Derby and Leeds.

Then there is Bob Taylor, a striker deemed surplus to West Bromwich Albion's requirements a division lower. As costly recruits like the pounds 3m Dean Holdsworth have struggled to provide the requisite support for Nathan Blake, Taylor has contributed vital goals during two loan spells.

The player who has emerged as Bolton's most prized asset is the pounds 5m-rated Alan Thompson, a Geordie midfielder with a lethal left foot. Yet there is no better symbol of the club's spirit and resilience than the one member of the squad actually born in the town, the same Jimmy Phillips.

The attacking left-back has seen it all since being taken on as an apprentice 15 years ago. When he made his full debut for the Wanderers, on the first day of 1984-85, only 4,400 were at Burnden to see it.

Three years later, as he settled into Ibrox as part of the Graeme Souness revolution, Bolton's free-fall led them to within one relegation of the Vauxhall Conference.

By the time he came home, via Oxford and Middlesbrough, they were pushing for the Premiership under Bruce Rioch and Todd.

Last year, having been through two promotions and one demotion, he appeared to be on the way out when Todd bought first Robbie Elliott and then Mike Whitlow to play in his position. Phillips, 32, could have left but decided he would rather be involved peripherally at Bolton than regularly in the lower echelons.

Then both newcomers succumbed to long-term injuries, and he came back to share, nay star, in Bolton's spring revival.

Such has been the panache with which he has played that the fans who were barracking him last autumn have dubbed him "Jiminho."

When Bolton were struggling at 2-2 against Palace, he chested down a pass, swivelled and scored with a textbook half-volley to ease the tension. It was, to coin a phrase, just like watching Brazil.

Phillips' first goal in four years was also a timely reminder to the management that his testimonial match, against Celtic, need not be his farewell.

Before he considers whether it is time to get on his bike, Bolton must stop the cycle of the euphoric rise followed by the instant fall. Make- or-break tomorrow beckons.