Bruce Rioch's first return to Burnden Park since guiding Bolton into the Premiership proved to be a deeply frustrating one last night. The wanderer returned to find the Wanderers as stubborn as jilted partners.
Which, in a sense, they were. Their former manager deserted them to go to the rich pastures of north London and judging by the reaction of the players he left behind the parting was felt. Bolton fought, ran and tackled like fury and just about hung on to only their second win in the league this season.
As a consequence they move to third from bottom, six points ahead of Manchester City, while Arsenal missed the opportunity to go third in the Premiership.
Arsenal rained 24 shots on the Bolton goal but thanks to an outstanding performance from the Bolton goalkeeper, Keith Branagan, bad luck and poor finishing, they could not break through. Instead John McGinlay's strike after 35 minutes proved enough. Just.
"That will kick-start our season and take us on to better things," McGinlay said. "It was a special occasion with Bruce coming back and we reacted to the atmosphere. It was like a Cup tie."
Arsenal have suffered Bolton in Cup ties in the recent past but even so last night's result would have seemed barely conceivable, judged on a first half-hour that belonged to the Gunners. Within 30 seconds Ian Wright fired a shot across the Bolton posts, and that was a precedent for repeated and often intelligent attacks.
At the core of them was Paul Merson, whose strays from the right flank usually led to disarray in the home defence. His twisting runs were persistently elusive but his colleagues also used the space he had vacated and after 11 minutes Arsenal should have scored precisely because Wright had moved to the wing.
Martin Keown had found him loitering there and when his low cross eluded two defenders Dennis Bergkamp was within shaking-hand distance of Branagan when it arrived in the six-yard box. Inexplicably, he pushed his shot wide.
The Bolton goalkeeper also had to make an excellent diving save to his right to deny Glenn Helder after 22 minutes and, as Ray Parlour had also gone close with a shot, it seemed a goal was inevitable. So it proved - only to everyone's surprise it went to Bolton.
The home attack had comprised a speculative shot from McGinlay until that point but after Alan Stubbs, playing in midfield, produced a pass that split the Arsenal centre-backs and found McGinlay. The Scottish international had one touch to steady his aim and then side-footed past David Seaman.
Arsenal had every reason to believe they had been hard done by and certainly they spent the second half acting like men nursing a severe grievance.
Wright had been threatening to slip his shackles throughout and after 49 minutes he burst free like a seasoned escapologist, turning at such a sharp angle that Gudni Bergsson was left sprawling on the floor. Wright then bewitched Branagan and appeared to have done everything required to score, but he chipped over the bar.
The pattern was set in stone. Arsenal had by far the greatest share of possession while Bolton waited for the right and fleeting moments to charge forward. Even in the last three minutes the Gunners could have had three goals but Helder, Bergkamp and Wright were all thwarted by Branagan. The irony is that the goalkeeper was the first player Rioch signed when he moved to Bolton.
Bolton Wanderers (4-4-2): Branagan; McAnespie, Bergsson, Fairclough, Phillips; Lee, Curcic (Patterson, 72), Stubbs, Thompson (Green, 80); McGinlay, Paatelainen. Substitute not used: De Freitas.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Dixon, Adams, Bould, Winterburn; Merson, Parlour, Keown (Platt, 77), Helder; Wright, Bergkamp. Substitutes not used: Hartson, Bartram (gk).
Referee: K Cooper (Pontypridd).