Football / FA Cup Countdown: Bolton tie no tea party for Arsenal: Rioch's eye-catching team will take wing on Monday. Guy Hodgson reports

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The Independent Online
THE Friday after they had put Everton out of the FA Cup, Bolton's players were given a new task to try in training. No ball was necessary, just two huge teapots and any number of plastic cups.

'I sent them out to serve tea to the supporters queuing up for tickets for the Arsenal game,' Bruce Rioch, the manager, said. 'They had travelled to Goodison to watch us and it was our way of saying thank you. We were communicating with our audience.'

For two seasons the people of Bolton have been appreciating what Rioch has been handing them. Last year they knocked Liverpool out of the FA Cup and rose into the First Division; this time Everton have been accounted for and they are by no means out of contention for promotion to the Premiership. Arsenal await on Monday.

Crowds have risen from an average of 6,000 to around 11,000 in the 20 months since Rioch, 46, arrived after resigning from Millwall amid supporter turbulence. Suggest he was a failure at The Den and he will wheel out a list of achievements that include the acquisition of Alex Rae and Kasey Keller, who are in the present team, and Colin Cooper and Chris Armstrong, who have since been sold for pounds 1m each.

It is not a coincidence that Millwall play some of the most eye-catching football in the First Division. And Bolton are not a robotic route-one outfit, either. All Rioch's teams have been good to watch and the present one conforms to the trend despite a Burnden Park pitch that has suffered from heavy rain and bad drainage, which must make it one of the worst surfaces in the League.

The spearhead was bought from Millwall - John McGinlay, who scored 21 goals last season and, even though he has been deprived of his normal foil, Andy Walker, has added a further 19 in 33 games this term. 'Tommy Docherty came here and after watching John for one game he told me: 'If I was a Premiership manager now the first thing I'd do would be offer pounds 1m for him. He's a natural goalscorer. Priceless.' Except he wouldn't get him for that.'

McGinlay is supplied by two flank men, David Lee and Mark Patterson, which belies the theory that progress in the lower divisions requires more than a nod in the direction of pragmatism. 'Why not?' Rioch asked. 'Manchester United do. Blackburn do. I like wingers. They're very dangerous, very penetrative if they're good enough. They make defenders think.'

Even those arch anti-romantics, Arsenal? 'We'll not compromise our style. We played two wingers against Everton and again against Liverpool. If we play well enough on the night they will have problems coping with our attacks.'

Everton could testify to that. It was not just bravado on Rioch's part when he said the hard part had been getting a draw at home. He reasoned that the flat earth of Goodison would suit his team better, and so it proved as Bolton recovered from a 2-0 deficit to win

3-2 in extra time.

'The best part of that result was the lift it gave the town,' Rioch said. 'Obviously it was nice for the people at the club but all over Bolton people went into work next day feeling better. They had smiles on their faces, productivity increased, they had something to look forward to. It makes you realise what a responsibility you have as a football manager.'

How long he will bear this burden in this corner of Greater Manchester is unclear. Everton were rumoured to be interested in their former player before they appointed Mike Walker and other, bigger clubs are unlikely to ignore Rioch's record. 'People say that Bolton's prospects are limited, but how limited is that?' he said. 'As small as Norwich, who got into Europe, or Wimbledon, who won the Cup?

'What's your date of birth? What's your date of death? Everyone knows the first, no one the second. You never know what's going to happen in the future.'

Monday is the immediate task ahead and, after that, perhaps a Cup to go with the supporters' tea. 'We got to the fifth round last year,' Rioch said with a mischievous grin that acknowledged that a repeat would account for Arsenal. 'My lads make a lovely brew.'

(Photograph omitted)