Bolton battle the boomerang

finds that the fear of immediate relegation is worrying Colin Todd
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The Independent Online
IT HAS become one of the season's rituals, like the inquest into why English clubs struggle in Europe or Gazza's latest attempt to put the fun into dysfunction: the team who come into the Premiership via the play-offs will go straight back down.

Before last season's climbers, Bolton Wanderers, a would-be magnificent seven clubs had hauled themselves up this North face of football and a not-so famous five had failed to plant a flag. The exceptions were Crystal Palace and Blackburn Rovers. Now Bolton look doomed to increase the figure to six out of eight.

The sounds coming out of Burnden Park, though, recall Tony Hancock's "I'm not dead yet" spoof of The Archers. "Nobody gives us a cat in hell's chance," the Bolton manager, Colin Todd, said, "but it can be done." The 4-1 win at Middlesbrough eight days ago has encouraged optimism anew. "In a way, our season starts here," Todd said of today's home match against Manchester United.

It is, to be honest, an optimism that the manager at the bottom of the table has to retain. Todd believes 37 points will keep Bolton up - though it took an average of 40 in the three seasons when the top division previously comprised 38 matches - which still means 21 points, or seven wins, from 11 matches. So far, Bolton have gleaned 16 points from 27.

What makes it a gloomy picture is that Bolton, who were Coca-Cola Cup finalists last season, were acknowledged by their Endsleigh peers as the best footballing side in that league. If they cannot survive in the Premiership, who can? Is a visit rather than a stay the best that the majority of aspirant clubs can hope for?

Bolton's experiences have been exemplary as a learning process for those wishing to avoid the up-and-down fate. The season began with Jason McAteer and Alan Stubbs wrangling over transfers; they tinkered with a formation of three centre-backs; parted company with a manager in Roy McFarland - Colin being left on his Todd to quote Brian Clough - and strengthened their squad gradually but belatedly: indecision and instability.

An awe of the Premiership was another factor. "Sometimes we have worried about the opposition too much. There may have been a wee bit of fear at times," Todd said. "The Premiership is something special, after all. It's three leagues in one, really: the elite; the in-between; and those fighting for survival.

"The big difference is simply the standard of players. We have been punished severely sometimes in games we have been winning or drawing and that's not down to luck, it's down to bad play by the team in terms of organising. For half a mistake you get punished, where in the First Division you might get away with it." The hallmark of an elite club, Todd said, is the striker who will score at least 25 goals. John McGinlay and Nathan Blake have not looked in that league.

Bolton's away form has been their biggest problem, just a point at Tottenham to go with the Middlesbrough win. Here the "awe factor" may also be high, with Burnden Park - still vaguely recognisable as the ground in LS Lowry's Going to the Match despite an intrusive superstore at the Railway End built when the club needed the money - antiquated compared with the superstadiums they play in elsewhere.

A new stadium is planned for a couple of years' time but in their immediate run-in, starting today against United, perhaps Wanderers can capitalise on their visitors being forced to slum it. Any straw to clutch at.

So in these days of money conquering all, does it take a certain amount to stay up? Blackburn's example would suggest so, though despite their investment of pounds 10m in two players, Middlesbrough are slipping dangerously close to another immediate relegation. It would be their third in the last eight years following promotion to the top division.

In the case of Bolton - who only eight years ago were in the bottom division - they have spent the pounds 4m received for Jason McAteer on eight players, including Sasa Curcic. Far from the saddest aspect of their relegation would be the silky Serb slipping out of view of the Premiership. He would stay, Todd insists; you have to wonder whether Stubbs will do the same this close season.

Todd is aware that, in common with other struggling sides, recruitment of cheaper foreign talent - they also have the Dutchmen Richard Sneekes and Fabien De Freitas, Icelander Gudni Bergsson and the assimilated Finn Mixu Paatelainen - could interrupt the progress of young players.

He points out that only latterly have Bolton been able to improve their youth set-up and that to secure a long-term future at the top level, short- term measures must be taken. Indeed, if a club can survive, then establish themselves in the middle tier of the Premiership at least, the better players are more likely to join.

"The players we have here have done remarkably well really, but we still need to strengthen the squad," Todd said. "I am still looking abroad. There will be movement before the transfer deadline. I think we are a footballing side but we could have a bit more steel.

"But physically they are fine, really. Mentally is the trouble. You have to say to them: 'Keep positive. You worked hard to get here. Let's not lose that opportunity.' The glimmer for us is in our games left. After United, the only match against a team in the top six is Tottenham at home."

The lessons of early season have been absorbed, Todd said. There is a new stability and a more suitable 4-4-2 formation. If it is not to be too late, if Bolton are not to be as fly-by-night as those other Trotters, Del Boy and Rodney, today's most anticipated of home matches really does need to be the first day of the rest of their season.