Sam Allardyce, the man who built the modern Bolton Wanderers, once remarked that there is no pressure that compares to being part of a club in the relegation zone. Like a toothache in the night, it never quite goes away.
The pressure on Owen Coyle does not seem obvious. Unlike Steve Kean at Blackburn Rovers, he does not have to face daily calls for his resignation. Unlike Roberto Martinez at Wigan Athletic, he does not have to wonder if he should have left an under-resourced club when his stock was at its height. There are many reasons why Bolton are bottom; not least a fixture list that has seen them play both Manchester clubs, Arsenal, Liverpool and now Chelsea – a team against whom they have lost their last eight matches at the Reebok Stadium without scoring a goal. Nigel Reo-Coker confessed he burst out laughing when he saw Bolton's start.
"I have never seen a team open with the run we have had to go through in the history of the Premier League," said the midfielder. "Normally, when you face the top sides early in the season, you can count on at least some of them not being the best starters. Some of them don't really get going until Christmas but we faced the big teams early and found them in fantastic form, which has been a real shock."
The toughness of the start meant that when Bolton did come across a winnable game – at home to Norwich – the pressure was immense. Reo-Coker thought that only in the second half, when they were already down to 10 men, did Bolton compete.
Coyle is phlegmatic about the way Bolton have begun and arranged a go-karting expedition for his players, which is the new-school equivalent of telling them to relax in a pub. He admits Gary Cahill's focus was turned to mush by Arsenal's interest in him and no sooner had Stuart Holden returned to Bolton's midfield than complications from a knee operation meant the American would miss the next six months.
Coyle pointed out that in September 2008, the Burnley side he managed were in the relegation zone after four matches. They ended the seasonpromoted. Nevertheless, this is a run of results that has lingered from last season when, after beating Arsenal at the Reebok, they lost their last five fixtures to fall from eighth to 14th, costing the club £4.5m in prize money.
Allardyce's legacy still looms large over the stadium's sweeping lines, even four years after he managed Bolton for the last time in a 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge. He had a formulathat, however unlovely, worked, although he admits that taking players of a certain age, like Jay-Jay Okocha or Ivan Campo, and squeezing a couple more years from them no longer works, in part because their kind no longer need the money or can earn it more easily in places like Dubai.
Coyle has worked another system, bringing in young, hugely promising footballers like Jack Wilshere and Daniel Sturridge on loan from managers such as Arsène Wenger and Carlo Ancelotti, who trusted him to educate them properly. They may not have so been generous with Allardyce.
Despite a friendship with Andre Villas-Boas that sees him discussing "a million and one things" with the Chelsea manager, Coyle needed hard cash to stop Sturridge lining up against him this afternoon. And although Villas-Boas loaned him Gael Kakuta, it was not quite the same thing.
Bolton never seemed comfortable with Allardyce's achievements. Immediately he resigned, they tried to change gear, announcing they would now start "playing football" as if what they had been doing until then had been a form of rugby.
The experiment was disastrously applied under Sammy Lee, who was fired after a defeat to Chelsea that left Bolton next to bottom, and rather more successfully under Coyle. In between came the barren football of Gary Megson, who succeeded in the first aim of any Wanderers manager – he did not relegate them.
Reo-Coker is one who believes Bolton ought to return to the kind of football that always seems to have been associated with the club since Nat Lofthouse put the ball and the Manchester United keeper, Harry Gregg, into the net in the 1958 FA Cup final. "We have conceded soft goals and that has never been what Bolton have been about," said Reo-Coker. "They have always been a very difficult team to beat and we need to get back to that old-school mentality of being Bolton bully boys.
"We have shown what we can do football-wise but, equally, we need to show we can mix it with a bit of old-school roughness. It's time to start winning ugly."
Bolton Wanderers v Chelsea is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 1.30pmReuse content