Bolton fight back to claim glittering prize

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The Independent Online
Bolton Wanderers 4

Reading 3

(after extra time; 2-2 at 90min)

The brave new world of the Premiership will be welcoming an old bold name of the past when it reopens in August. Bolton Wanderers, a club whose glory days seemed condemned to the cobwebs of history, are back among the elite.

They got there after the domestic campaign climaxed with a final match as dramatic as anything that had gone before, even in this most tumultuous of seasons.

With barely half-an-hour gone yesterday, Bolton were staring into the abyss. They were two goals down and facing a penalty which would confirm their defeat and, in all probablity, herald the departure of their manager, Bruce Rioch, and the break-up of his talented side.

Stuart Lovell, Reading's Australian-born striker, struck the penalty competently but Keith Branagan, in the Bolton goal, dived to his right to save. When the ball was returned, Lovell shot over the bar.

The Bolton end, so quiet while their side was being dissected by Reading's sweet passing, exploded into cheers. Bolton did not get on level terms until four minutes from the end of normal time but that was when yesterday's First Division play-off final turned.

Reading, the club without a reserve team or training ground, had gone two up after 11 minutes as Bolton surprisingly started the game riddled with nerves.

The first goal was worthy of any occasion. Scott Taylor, a dominant first- half influence, began the move in defence, Lovell and Andy Bernal carried it forward, and Lee Nogan, taking the ball with his back to goal, turned Alan Stubbs and dummied Richard Green and Gudni Bergsson before calmly scoring. Seven minutes later Mick Gooding won a free-kick, Simon Osborn floated it over and Adrian Williams steered the ball in.

Reading were cantering and, when Jason McAteer brought down Michael Gilkes as he dribbled past him and Green, it looked all over. But Branagan saved the penalty, and Lovell, given the chance to make amends when he intercepted Stubbs' ill-judged backheader nine minutes later, chipped over.

At half-time Bolton re-organised; Fabian De Freitas went into attack, McAteer and the hitherto anonymous Alan Thompson came into central midfield with orders to run with the ball.

Reading, unsure whether to defend or attack, did neither very well and Bolton, having seized the initiative, pulled one back when Owen Coyle headed in John McGinlay's cross with 15 minutes left. Eleven minutes later Bergsson robbed Gooding in his own area, Stubbs found Thompson who drove at Reading before releasing De Freitas to score.

Into extra-time and, as players tired, McAteer's unquenchable energy took effect. With the interval looming he broke down the left and back- heeled to Coyle, his cross was returned by McGinlay for Mixu Paatelainen to head in.

Reading strained anew but it was Bolton who struck again, De Freitas converting McGinlay's near-post cross at the second attempt. Jimmy Quinn's volleyed riposte was too late for Reading - the game had slipped from their grasp. At the final whistle Lovell sank to the ground in despair. He will long remember the day. Gooding - joint-manager with Quinn - was the first to console him.

Cynics will say the result is a kindness. Elm Park, Reading's small and dated ground, is not fit for Premiership football and they would simply have "done a Swindon" and returned in tatters. But they finished second in the Endsleigh League, play good football, and deserved their chance to dine at the top table.

Bolton have been there before, but not for a while. They were once a power in the land, founder members of the league, they spent all but seven of its first 76 seasons in the top tier. There were four FA Cup wins, including the first at Wembley, in 1923, and that of 1958, against a Manchester United side still mourning the Munich disaster.

They also know what it is like to squander a two-goal lead and lose 4- 3 at Wembley - they were the support act to the Matthews FA Cup final in 1953.

But, with the abolition of the maximum wage Bolton, like those other Lancashire cotton towns, Burnley, Blackburn and Blackpool, found themselves slipping down the divisions.

There was a brief revival, 17 years ago, when Ian Greaves brought an Indian summer from Frank Worthington, and a Wembley return in 1986, to lose the Freight Rover Trophy final. But, the following season, they fell into the Fourth Division.

Slowly, under first Phil Neal, then Bruce Rioch, they have clawed their way back, combining league success with a series of impressive cup wins over Premiership opposition. There is progress off the field too, with plans well-advanced for a new stadium.

Geographically they lie between Blackburn and Manchester and, while it is hard to see them matching that pair, for the summer at least, Wanderers can dream along with their neighbours.

Bolton Wanderers (4-4-2): Branagan; Green, Bergsson, Stubbs, Phillips; McAteer, McDonald (De Freitas, h-t), Thompson; McGinlay, Coyle, Paatelainen. Substitutes not used: Dreyer, Shilton (gk).

Reading (3-5-2): Hislop; Wdowczyk, Williams, McPherson; Bernal (Hopkins, 68), Taylor, Osborn, Gooding, Gilkes; Nogan (Quinn, 62), Lovell. Substitute not used: Sheppard (gk).

Referee: P Foakes (Clacton).