Bolton tune in to a family affair

`I have bought players who have families and the reason is not for ability but stability'
Click to follow
Watch Bruce Rioch during a match, and you can believe him when he says that if he was ever asked to appear on Desert Island Discs, his luxury would be a football. Given half a chance, he gallops after misplaced passes with the enthusiasm of a new ballboy. You suspect it is with the heaviest heart he gives it back.

Managers, by their nature, lead a vicarious existence. All of them would prefer to play, but deprived of agility and youth they sit and suffer. Psychologists might well conclude that the closer to the pitch they are, the dearer they value their lost gifts, and Rioch, a former Scotland captain, could hardly get any nearer.

The Bolton Wanderers bench is perched so close to the sideline that you fear a collision with the linesman. Rioch and his assistant, Colin Todd, cannot actually kick the ball, although they do all but, providing a waterfall of advice from the closest of quarters. The men nearest to the torrent, wingers David Lee and Alan Thompson, must love the quiet of away matches. Wembley, on Sunday, more than anywhere.

"If you sit in the stand, you look at the game with a possibly more rational viewpoint," Rioch - who moved his position from under the terraces to the front line on his arrival in May 1992 - concedes, "because you're not as emotionally tied up with what's going on on the pitch. But we like to get involved with the players, and if we can assist from the touchline we will do. That's by talking to them. When you're as close as we are, you're almost playing the game as well."

The word "we" is important. Rioch - whose team meet Liverpool in Sunday's Coca-Cola Cup final - and Todd form a partnership symbiotic enough that Peter Shilton, signed by Bolton as goalkeeping cover this month, was asked this week to compare it with another managerial duo of his past, Brian Clough and Peter Taylor. "Colin's not as funny as Peter," the former England goalkeeper replied, but his response did not dismiss the question as hopelessly fanciful.

Rioch joined Derby as a stylish midfield player just after Clough and Taylor's acrimonious departure in 1973, and it was where he originally met Todd. The acquaintance was renewed first at Middlesbrough and now at Burnden Park.

He says his role is to define the strategy of the club from the appearance of the players to the players who appear, but he agrees it is Todd who frequently puts those ground rules into practice. "We work together," he said. "It's not a one-man show any longer. The structure of management in this country has always been two or three people."

That is borne out by the players, who say the whole is stronger than the two parts. "One day the manager's quiet and Toddy will give everybody a roasting," Jimmy Phillips, the club's left-back, says. "Another day and it's the other way round. Which is good because when people get typecast you know what to expect, but when you never know what's going to happen it keeps you on your toes. Which is maybe how they like to work."

Whatever the style, it would be facile to deny the Rioch-Todd partnership has worked. Bolton, apart from a brief revival under Ian Greaves, were Nat Loft-house, the Fifties and post-maximum wage decline until Rioch and Todd arrived, and in less than three years they have brought the club to the Coca-Cola Cup final, and from the Second Division to the brink of the Premiership.

Rioch attributes that to the close-knit nature of Bolton, extending the bond he has with Todd through the players and beyond. He says the team spirit is what has made success possible on the pitch, and he is keen to let the supporters in on it, frequently sending out his charges with huge pots of tea for fans queueing for tickets.

"The paying customer is an important person in the football club," he says. "He pays a lot of money to watch us play and we like to reward them. You need to communicate with supporters, and the best way is not through newspapers, because that's too distant, you have to be out there in the car-park with them. They get to understand, learn a little bit more about the manager and get closer to the players. That's important."

Rioch maintains his club is his family and the theme recurs throughout, even to the extent of defining his transfer policy. He says he treats the players like sons and if, in turn, they have offspring, he is all the happier.

"We place a lot of emphasis in the club on a family environment with respect to the players, their wives, their children. Invariably I have bought players who have families, and the reason for that is not about ability but stability. Generally, a chap who has a wife and two or three kids will be at home having a sensible life, rather than me wondering whether they are in nightclubs or whatever. I have made a conscious effort to buy stability."

That stability will be challenged on Sunday by the club that has, the Graeme Souness era apart, mastered the family factor. Rioch says Liverpool have been the bench-mark for others to follow for three decades, but he has an FA Cup win at Anfield two years ago to boost hopes that his First Division team will confound expectation.

"The previous meeting has little relevance," he says, "although it proves we are capable of surprising them. We will be confident because the results in the League have bred that in us. We are going to a cup final with a team who have been playing well, and that makes a difference.

"That was highlighted in the semi-final against Swindon where they went a goal ahead here, 2-0 up on aggregate, but we always felt that if we could get a goal it would affect them deeply because they're struggling at the wrong end of the table. We scored, and nerves started to show in their team."

To such an extent that Bolton got three goals in the last 20 minutes for a 3-2 aggregate victory, a match that will linger in the minds of locals who have lived on a restricted diet since the club's great days of 40 years ago.

"Life's about good memories," Rioch added, "and in football you get more than most. The match against Swindon was a good night, and you take moments like that as they come. The next win is always a good memory."

And particularly so if it reaps Bolton their first major trophy since their FA Cup victory of 1958. A memory worthy of taking to a desert island. Along with a ball, of course.