Kevin Nolan: Captain of industry

Dropped by Sammy Lee during his ill-fated spell as Bolton manager, club skipper Kevin Nolan vowed to work hard to reclaim his place. Now he believes graft can rescue a poor season for the Wanderers
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The Independent Online

The city of Liverpool, a place where the working man is always inclined to know what he believes in, has delivered up legions of individuals who will stand up and be counted at the factory gate and the 25-year-old perched in a stand high above his own workplace this week is no different. Kevin Nolan is not a firebrand his measured, thoughtful air belongs to this century, not the industrial strife of the last but when the very fabric of his firm began crumbling seven weeks ago, the Liverpudian was one of the union committee men who went knocking on the management's door in search of answers.

The "firm", of course, was Bolton Wanderers a club where Nolan, a City of Liverpool Schoolboys player, signed on at 17 and is now a stalwart ahead of his time. He thought he knew the club inside out until Sammy Lee took charge, rewrote what Nolan believed to be its founding footballing principles and, after the player had expressed concerned about this, promptly dropped him. Nolan, the club's captain, has until now not said too much about the way things imploded in Lee's short and controversial reign, during which Bolton plunged from the lofty Premier League heights of the Sam Allardyce era to second bottom, but his description of the day he knocked on Lee's door to ask why he had been dropped provides an illuminating insight into the sense of torpor which gripped the club in the dying days of his era.

The background to the meeting was not the most encouraging. Nolan had been one of those senior players delegated to approach Lee about his decision to dispense with Allardyce's direct tactics and turn Bolton into a passing team when he found himself dropped for the home match with Chelsea on 7 October and it was the next morning that he knocked on his door and asked why. "I said: 'What's happening?'" Nolan recalls. "He said: 'You come on and tell me what's up.' I said: 'What do you mean, "what's up?" I'm gutted I wasn't playing.' He said: 'I don't think you were gutted enough.' I said: 'I was.' It just went back and fro, like that."

We are not privy to Lee's side of the story and Nolan's description of the quality of his coaching qualities "probably the best coach I've ever worked with; fantastic to be around" suggests he is certainly a man worth listening to. But it is hard not to conclude from Nolan's account that the insecurity created in Lee by the pressures of management led him into some seriously flawed man-management techniques. Nolan told Lee, during that 10-minute meeting back in October, that he wanted to work to get his place back. "Sammy said: 'that's what I wanted to hear. That's good. It's up to you now to prove me wrong.'" But in the event, he did not get the chance to do so. Lee was sacked a few days later, presaging the arrival of Gary Megson whose more direct approach to player relations seems to be working. Before last Sunday's heavy defeat at Liverpool, the club had collected three league draws and the victory over Manchester United, under Megson, and will be looking for more points when they clash with Steve Bruce's Wigan tomorrow in arguably this weekend's most significant fixture.

For some managers Arsne Wenger among them Bolton's owner Eddie Davies and Phil Gartside, the chairman, dismissed Lee with indecent haste. But while Nolan expresses regret that a fellow member of the Liverpool fraternity, with whom he had more banter than many at the Reebok, should have gone, he stands by the importance of having senior players willing to speak their minds.

"What people don't see outside of football is that you have a 'committee' of senior players at a football club, who the manager automatically turns to when things are going wrong, or even if it's going well," he says. "He might just say, 'What do you think about having a night out with all the lads?' That structure's important to a club."

The Bolton committee reps are Gary Speed (whose disagreements with Lee led the manager to remove him from his role as player-coach) as well as Nolan, Kevin Davies and goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen, with Nicolas Anelka and El-Hadji Diouf forming a French sub-committee. It is a set-up Nolan has known ever since he arrived at the club and which, with Megson's arrival, seems to have been restored to working order.

Arriving at a club whose fans resent you, to replace a man whose footballing differences with Allardyce had played a part in seeing him off, must have seemed formidable to Megson and his strategy, Nolan reveals, was to sit the squad down in the dressing room, close the door and talk for 30 minutes. His opening gambit, as Nolan tells it, was along the lines of: "Whatever you've heard about me from people in the game, forget it." And there was also an abundance of modesty. "He just said: 'Right, this is me; this is what I'm about. I'm delighted to work with a team like you,'" Nolan says. "'I've never had the opportunity to work with players like you before and if you can help each other we can get out of this situation together.'"

There was a stick as well as a carrot '"let's get back to what you do best but if you don't give it you'll know about it,'" was the sign-off Nolan remembers from Megson on that chilly Thursday morning. But being told by the manager that he's worked with few better worked wonders for Nolan despite the reputation which has seen the former England Under-21 international spoken of as a possible senior squad player, two years ago.

"The lads felt..." Nolan pauses to hunt for the words to describe the effect Megson's arrival had and, from the way he suddenly exhales, it's something along the lines of "unbridled relief." "It was like fresh air," he says. "We just thought: 'Let's get out there and go and enjoy training.' We were confident about things."

Though Nolan is still in touch with Allardyce the man who brought him to the Reebok, wedded him to the club and sends him a couple of text messages a month with some thoughts and encouragement there's a sense that Megson is a more democratic manager than any he has known.

"He does listens to you and takes it in," says Nolan. "And whether he thinks what you're saying is right or wrong about something, if he thinks its going to help, he'll say: 'Let's see if that will work.' He is willing to accept sometimes that you've got to listen to the players."

Bolton's return under Megson to their founding principles their "nastiness and edginess" had gone, Nolan says, and "teams were coming here and playing pretty football and enjoying themselves which has never been the case since we've come to the Premier League" did not curry much favour with Sir Alex Ferguson, when his side were beaten 1-0 at the Reebok last month. But survival is the priority, even if it does mean putting "the ugliness back into Bolton Wanderers".

Nolan's description of what Bolton stand for belies the reputation Nolan established before that talk of an England call-up. If Allardyce had got the job instead of Steve McClaren "it's such a crying shame that the FA got it wrong and McClaren got it wrong," Nolan says then you sense he might have got his cap. But with his name having drifted out of the frame he knows that he needs to be staking a claim soon. "If I'm doing well here, we're doing well in Europe and doing well in the league they can't ignore me for ever," he says.

There is another possible route, if England aspirations do not prevail. Nolan's mother has strong Irish roots and, as the family name suggests, there are also distant Irish ancestors on his father's side but despite a couple of conversations with Steve Staunton before his own demise and some digging around by the Football Association of Ireland, nothing has yet come to light which might make him into an Irishman. "There might be something but we've got to look deeper into it and hopefully if we do decide to do that we can maybe get sorted," says Nolan, who adds that the matter is not closed.

And yet even Nolan, who you sense is happy in every way with his life and lot, would struggle with the dilemma which any breakthrough on the Irish granny rule might bring. He says he's unsure whether the Irish people would accept that he really "wants to be there" playing for them. But donning a green shirt would mean giving up a white one for all time and that would be hard too. In his heart of hearts he wants to see his children "at an England game watching their dad," he says. "I want that cap."

Nolan certainly has plenty to keep his mind busy at present during international breaks. His first child, daughter Jasmine, has just turned one and since she started walking at nine months, there has been plenty more running around at their Liverpool home for both him and partner Hayley, a nurse at the city's Alder Hey hospital.

And when those duties are concluded, there's also his own preliminary skirmish with football management at Nicosia, an amateur team on Merseyside for whom Nolan doubles as assistant manager and main sponsor. They've again made it to the last 16 of the national FA Sunday Cup, which they've already won twice. The tie with Magnet Tavern on 13 January will, to Nolan's dismay, clash with Bolton's derby tie with Blackburn at the Reebok. But at least old rivals Lobster, another Liverpool team for whom half the Rooney family have played in recent years, are now out. "We are in every trophy this year and going really strong, the lads are going really well at the moment," says Nolan. By contrast with what he has recently experienced, his management style is uncomplicated and involves grabbing a pint in the bar after the match before nipping home, if there are no midweek games for Bolton.

The burden of responsibility felt for tomorrow and the months ahead is onerous by comparison but after the events of the past few months, you sense Nolan is somehow better equipped to tackle it. "I've been at this club since I was 17 and I can't even contemplate going down from the top flight," he says. "Just what that would mean after all that we've achieved is hard to put in words. We're round pegs in round holes once more and we're in the Premier League for the future." Such are the words of the man back at the coal face again.

Player power: Managers who lost the dressing-room

* BRIAN CLOUGH (Leeds United, 1974)

Upon arriving at Elland Road he told the players to bin their medals as they had "all been won by cheating". The squad, still wedded to Don Revie, never forgave. He lasted 44 days before being sacked, but drove away with a small fortune. Later won the league title and two European Cups with Nottingham Forest.

* RUUD GULLIT (Newcastle United, 1998-99)

The Dutchman had a series of fall-outs with star names. When he left Alan Shearer on the bench for the derby match with Sunderland his team-sheet was described as a "suicide note". Newcastle lost. Three days later he was out.

* PAUL STURROCK (Southampton, 2004)

Came from a successful spell at Plymouth but left the St Mary's club after just five months on the South Coast, amid tales of player unrest and boardroom dissatisfaction.

* ALAIN PERRIN (Portsmouth, 2005)

Spent a miserable seven months in charge at Fratton Park. Sacked after achieving just two wins in 14 games following series of transfer flops.

* PAUL LE GUEN (Rangers, 2006-07)

The Frenchman arrived from Lyons with a big reputation but made the worst start by a Rangers manager in 25 years. Feeling his authority was being undermined he stripped Barry Ferguson of the captaincy, then dropped him. Le Guen failed to last the week.

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