As the first day of autumn passes, the burnished leaves of Bolton still cling to the top of the Premiership tree. They will fall eventually, of course, but it will require a team with rather greater wit than Arsenal displayed yesterday to shake them off.
Arsène Wenger's side ended the contest with four strikers, and were opposed for most of it by 10 men – Ricardo Gardner having been dismissed just before the half-hour – but could still manage only one goal, that from the foot of Francis Jeffers, who was scoring his first since the £8 million summer move.
The former Evertonian was probably the only Arsenal player in celebratory mood last night. This is the kind of result that the Gunners could rue come the spring.
Indifferent finishing was their primary downfall, the product, according to Wenger, of fatigue following Wednesday night's Champions' League game against Schalke. Yet, while he may have a point, that should not detract from a superbly disciplined Bolton performance, in which their captain, Gudni Bergsson, was the inspiration. How pleased the Icelander must be he was persuaded by his manager to postpone a career as a solicitor. "He was superb, along with Mike Whitlow,'' enthused manager Sam Allardyce.
Though Allardyce's team are far from the most aesthetic addition to the Premiership the spirit is strong and the commitment to the cause absolute. Having been caught in the shifting sands between Premiership and First Division so often, this time Wanderers have surely found the opportunity to establish roots among the élite.
Arsenal's captain, Tony Adams, and the full-back Ashley Cole had returned to bolster a rearguard whose frailties had been exposed by Schalke, though at the start of the season the Highbury faithful might have anticipated that their team could start the fixture without undue concern over their defence, such would be the presumed paucity of the opposition.
Normally, Wenger has the luxury of selecting two from his five available forwards from the start. But on this occasion he opted for three attackers, in Sylvain Wiltord, Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp.
Giovanni van Bronckhorst, restored to his favoured midfield berth, unsettled the visitors' defence early on with tantalising corners. That established the pattern in the first half-hour, with Arsenal giving their Lancashire opponents the third degree but failing to extract the confession "we are not worthy of our current lofty status''.
Wanderers were efficient and neat in defence and, with the added protection of that fearsome warrior Paul Warhurst deployed just in front of them, Bolton restricted their illustrious hosts to two long-range efforts by Bergkamp and attempts by Henry and Van Bronckhorst which were respectively weak and off-target. Bolton also frustratedwith an offside ploy that thrice halted promising attacks.
Though their own attacking ambition was limited, Dean Holdsworth being Bolton's lone striker, they did miss one chance in the first period when the former Wimbledon man failed to get a touch to Henrik Pedersen's cross.
But then Wanderers' strategy was thrown awry as the half-hour approached. Henry dispatched Bergkamp on one of those scintillating bursts, only for the Dutchman to find Gardner apparently hauling him back as the pair approached the area. After consultation with an assistant, the referee, Clive Wilkes, dismissed Gardner, to the disgust of the visiting players.
Wenger opined that he would rather Bergkamp had been allowed to proceed "because 90 per cent of the time it would have been a goal anyway'', but his counterpart Allardyce, who enjoyed a lively touchline debate with the Arsenal manager immediately after the incident, was distinctly unhappy. "I didn't think he [Gardner] touched him. If he did, it was with a feather,'' the Bolton manager said. "It wasn't the referee's decision, it was the linesman's. It was an absolute nothing and just afterwards our player Johnson was fouled in similar circumstances, but stayed on his feet. Should I be telling my players to take a dive? After that, having looked very comfortable it was backs to the wall.''
It was, although an unconvincing Arsenal required an eternity to take advantage. Van Bronckhorst forced a spectacular save from Jussi Jaaskelainen and Wiltord headed against the bar. Meanwhile, Johnson could have made things even more uncomfortable for the Gunners if he had shown more composure in front of goal.
With 16 minutes remaining, substitute Jeffers combined with Robert Pires and Henry for what appeared to be the winner. But Allardyce's men had not come this far for no reward. Pedersen had already produced a fine save from Seaman before substitute Rod Wallace worked the ball to the goalline and cut it back for another man off the bench, Michael Ricketts, to swivel and volley the ball beautifully over the Arsenal goalkeeper.
Bolton will not be dislodged. It's not easy on the eye and it's not for the purist. But by hell, it's effective, as Wanderers fans will continue to proclaim: "Just play it again, Sam.''
Bolton Wanderers 1
Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 38,014Reuse content