Now it can be talked about, rather than whispered privately for fear of ridicule: Bolton Wanderers, who have not finished among the country's top six clubs since cotton was king, intend to bring European football to the Reebok Stadium. The bad news is that despite being on the verge of signing a new contract, Sam Allardyce, the manager who has made it possible for such bold ambition to speak its name, sees himself moving on eventually to even higher things.
Bolton were Allardyce's first club and first love, despite him being a Midlander by birth. He made more than 200 appearances for them, playing an important role as they won promotion back to the top division in 1978 after a 14-year absence, and then returning as manager to do the same again four seasons ago. After two years spent struggling against relegation, last season marked a huge step forward, the Wanderers reaching the League Cup final and rising from the bottom three exactly a year ago to eighth place by February, which a cosmopolitan squad held on to for the club's best finish since the late 1950s.
That was somehow appropriate, for Allardyce, a centre-half of what might politely be called the old school, would not have been out of place in the formidable Bolton defence that terrorised opposing attacks in that era ("when you've finished with him, Tommy lad, chip him over to me"). But on the last occasions they might have qualified for Europe, winning the FA Cup with Nat Lofthouse's two goals in 1958 and finishing fourth the following year, the European Cup-Winners' Cup was barely a gleam in Uefa's eye and qualification for the Inter-Cities' Fairs Cup, as its name implied, depended more on holding a trade fair than on any footballing achievement.
Last Wednesday the League Cup was again cut off as an avenue to the Continent, by a 4-3 loss to Tottenham just a few days after beating them in the Premiership. So it is important to get back on track this afternoon at home to Newcastle, who are two points beneath them. "My ambition is to take the club where they have not been before, to try to get into Europe," Allardyce said. "That would be the ultimate dream, the all-inspiring dream. Behind the scenes five years ago it was put in place at the training ground and we kept it there, because all you lot would have laughed at us. In fact, even the chairman laughed as well. Now we are getting a little closer to it so we can talk about it. It may be an unachievable goal, but you set your targets as high as you possibly can."
Like his English contemporary Alan Curbishley at Charlton, he is delighted to have rescued a distinguished old club from the doldrums, and enjoys the appreciation it has brought him in the stands and the boardroom: "At the moment it's as good as it's ever been for me as a manager, because I can manage the football side without interference, which is a massive bonus. People don't realise how important it is to be able to do the job without being distracted by the owners or chairman or directors interfering constantly."
The flip side is wondering - also like Curbishley - whether enough people outside the club appreciate what he has achieved, and occasionally yearning for a chance on a bigger stage; hence the rather bitter little joke at his own expense that he would be better off as a Latin manager whose name was pronounced Allar-deechay. A gentle query about staying at Bolton for the rest of his career brings a disconcerting response: "I don't know. I hope not, really. The chairman won't thank me for saying it, but I have got an ambition to be as successful as I possibly can.
"I had it as a player and managed to play at the top level with three clubs [Bolton, Sunderland and Coventry]. When I first started in management at Limerick, my ambition was to get to the highest level. I am in the game to get up on a Saturday morning and win a football match. If I don't, it kills me for the rest of the week. When you are still at this level, you know you're going to lose more than you win, which is not easy for me to accept."
Even with five wins to two losses this season, he is still in the red overall (38 victories and 45 defeats), which puts the long-term struggle in context. There have been signs of encouragement, however, in coming through successive games against Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal unbowed and sitting in the top four for the past couple of months. "We have been attacking more, but lost a bit of defensive solidity," he said.
Famed a couple of years ago for fielding a team without a British player, Bolton started with four last weekend, this season's greatest successes emphasising that, as the manager puts it: "We scout for what we can afford." Thus Rahdi Jaidi, the goalscoring central defender, was picked up from Tunisia's African Nations' Cup team by one of the club's unsung heroes, the 69-year old scout Jack Chapman, whereas Gary Speed arrived for £750,000 from today's opponents.
At 35, Speed is still going strong in extending his record number of Premiership appearances and shows no sign of stopping, but Alan Shearer, far and away the competition's leading goal-scorer, has indicated that he will retire at the end of the season. If he happens to fall into conversation with the home manager this afternoon, he will be emphatically advised to carry on for as long as his legs will keep going.
Allardyce's bloodhound jowels looked more lugubrious than ever when he said: "Stopping playing is hugely depressing. No matter what you finish your life with, nothing can ever replace it. I finished at 38 and it was horrible. It's a massive drug and it's very difficult to let it go. Do it as long as you can."
Big Sam, as if anyone ever doubted it, is not the retiring type.Reuse content