Bogdan: The Bolton Brain Box

Wanderers' young goalkeeper tells Ian Herbert about Communism back home in Hungary, his interest in the Arab Spring and laughing off his cheesy nickname

For some reason, the story of Adam Bogdan, a goalkeeper with views on the qualities of English music, the decline of Hungarian football in the post-Communist era and interests including the Arab Spring and Syria has not gravitated much beyond an anecdote about him and a bag of Wotsits.

It's a rather good anecdote, for all that – and one which has taken on an element of urban myth in the re-telling – about how, when Bogdan wore an orange jersey which vaguely co-ordinated with his red hair in his first match for Bolton Wanderers, at Southampton 18 months ago, the St Mary's Stadium rang to the sounds of “Who's the Wotsit in the goal?”.

Legend has it that his team-mates were so amused that they stashed his locker with Wotsits the following week, though Bogdan explains in this, his first in-depth interview, that it was actually Bolton's kit lady, Gloria, who produced the cheese snack in question – “just one small packet” – when the joke had left him baffled.

“I didn't hear the song,” the 24-year-old Hungarian relates in his rapid, fluent English. “Even if they said Wotsit, I wouldn't have known. And I still don't really know what it was all about. I think it's crisps or something? It wasn't something I actually got.” Gloria, “the best kit lady in the Premier League” according to Bolton's Fabrice Muamba, was evidently a little diffident about producing the packet in question.

“She was a bit shy about it,” Bogdan recalls. “She said, 'I hope you don't take it the wrong way but you said you didn't know what it was!'”

His willingness to discuss a nickname you sense he is not wild about reflects the fact that he is most certainly not “big time”, as he puts it a few minutes later, when he feels that his recollections of how he was pretty useful at handball, the sport which he took up before football, might have sounded a little too self-congratulatory. The goalkeeper has certainly made it to the big time though, his performances for Owen Coyle during the absence through injury of Jussi Jaaskelainen having seen him retain the starting position now that the Finn is available again.

Which brings him to a date with destiny at the Reebok this afternoon. Ten miles, four points, two places and the A58 divide Bolton and their visitors, bottom club Wigan Athletic. A desperate fight for survival unites them.

Bogdan is grounded, though. Before we meet, on a bitterly cold, snow-flecked hillside in one of Bolton's most deprived districts, he is throwing himself into some hockey, as part of the Bolton Wanderers Community Trust's work with the Premier League 4 Sport initiative, to get children from all backgrounds involved in some of the less prominent club sports which will feature in this summer's Olympics. Hockey is not huge in Hungary but he gets it, even when the England Hockey representative has told him you're not supposed to use the back of the stick.

The club's Community Trust has created something of a hockey revolution up here in the past three months, getting 271 girls playing hockey, 21 of whom have subsequently joined local clubs, so Bogdan is up against it at the Essa Academy school. An excellent astro-turf pitch helps, though, and he certainly learned the value of a good surface when, having juggled handball and football for several years, he opted at the age of nine for what seems to have been the halfway house of football goalkeeping. He tells the Academy children that he chose to be a goalkeeper because “when I was a child I liked to be muddy and get dirty and dive around” and his early years in Hungary gave him more of that experience than he would probably have liked.

“We played on clay,” he says, “because there were no groundsmen to treat the grass and clay was easier to maintain because you just don't really have to do anything to it.”

This was the environment at the Second District sports club in Budapest, where for a year he would play the first half of football matches, get changed in the car and head off for a handball fixture. It was the same when he was spotted by the legendary iron and steelworkers' Vasas club, in the capital, where he played from the age of nine to 19.

“The clay goes under your skin,” Bogdan says. “When I was getting bigger you had to play with protection – knee protection, elbow protection, otherwise you hurt yourself. That's why I looked forward to playing away. They knew I always wanted to come to England because of the atmosphere and because the grass is always great!”

He is talking about one of the pre-eminent clubs in a nation that produced World Cup finalists in 1938 and 1954 and that, with their legendary “Golden Squad”, destroyed England 6-3 at Wembley in 1953. “Twilight of the Gods” is how the Daily Mirror's headline described England's emasculation by the Mighty Magyars that night.

How could this decline and fall have happened? “You have to understand that, when the country was under Communist rule until the 1990s, these clubs were founded by the big state-run companies,” says Bogdan, who attended the funeral of Ferenc Puskas, totem of those days, five years ago. “And when democracy came in, the funds were cut because these companies went bankrupt or were privatised so they put less money into sport. The infrastructure never improved. I think they [also] just stopped developing the coaching infrastructure. They just stopped developing. Maybe they got a bit confident.”

Young Hungarian players such as Bogdan have heard frequent reminders about the glorious past, not dissimilar to England, 1966 and all that. “They say, 'Oh yeah, we used to have that team, those days were great' and 'what are you guys doing? Nothing!'” he relates.

Yet the nation has developed a curious reputation for producing good goalkeepers. First, there was Gabor Kiraly, whose arrival at Crystal Palace in 2004 prompted an explosion in Hungary's Premier League interest. West Bromwich's Marton Fulop and Liverpool's Peter Gulacsi have since followed.

“It's not easy to make it as a football player in Hungary, with the culture and pitches,” Bogdan says. “Some of them do it. But as a keeper you are individual in a team and therefore, if you are lucky enough and motivated enough and you know what your goals are and you keep focusing and keep meeting the right people, [you can extricate yourself.]”

The “right person” for him was Fred Barber – a Bolton goalkeeping coach whose week-long training camps are something of a legend in these parts. When Bogdan was invited on one, he had dropped to Second Division side Vecses, on loan, after a first team place at Vasas proved elusive, But he was already a Hungary Under-21 international and Bolton signed him. He remains Bolton's only signing from Sammy Lee's brief era.

His close friend Ali al-Habsi, in the opposing goal for Wigan this afternoon, knows how it feels to be goalkeeper-in-waiting to Jaaskelainen, and begged Coyle to let him leave. But Bogdan has broken through. There have been sticky moments, such as a 5-1 home defeat to Chelsea in October, but an excellent penalty save from Wayne Rooney in a 3-0 defeat at Old Trafford was one of the more high-profile demonstrations of his calm emergence as a goalkeeper of authority. “It's easier when you play against United because all the games are broadcast,” he says. “I saw [Rooney] miss the penalty against [Manchester] City when he scored from the rebound. We all have our IT stuff too. It's not really a secret. We just make our minds up [which way to dive].”

You sense there's been some agonising about a certain windy night at Goodison Park last month – when his opposite number Tim Howard scored directly from a clearance.

“I knew the ball was going to come big and I just tried to get ready, if the defender missed the ball, to be in the right spot to collect the ball,” Bogdan says. “Unfortunately the wind picked it up. Obviously I tried to think, 'What did I do wrong? Should I have done something better?' But, as I looked at the video and talked to people I really trust, I don't think it was anything to do with me. Well... it is something to do with me, obviously! But yes it was a freak goal. I just had to get on with it.”

It's an honest assessment, which reveals that Bogdan is someone with a broad perspective, for whom the BBC iPlayer and, dare it be said, The Independent have been a window on the events of the Arab Spring and more.

“I try to keep up with the world,” he says. “Yours is a big paper so there's not always time but I'm into history and geography. What has happened in Egypt and Syria is hard to talk about in football because people don't really know.”

The story of Adam Bogdan. A cheesy tale about crisps is barely the start of it.

My Other Life

England is the perfect country for music as there are so many gigs and concerts. My partner and I have been to see Coldplay in Manchester, Adele, Kasabian... I can't tell you how many gigs. I'm into travelling and I try to do as much as I can in the summer. This sport is really good for it! I went to Barcelona and Cyprus last summer, before that Egypt. I try to keep up with the world. You have this BBC iPlayer, which is good. I do read The Independent, too. There's not always time but I try to enjoy some of the articles when I have a chance.

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