Bolton rely on swing and a prayer
Coyle believes his team have the momentum and urges his players to prove they are worth a new contract and a place in the Premier League
Sunday 13 May 2012
If you ask any politician, whether they are aiming for a seat on the parish council or the presidency of the United States, they will tell you it is always better to lose by a landslide. Lose by a handful and you will always know where those votes could have come from. Al Gore will never live down the spoilt ballot cards in Dade County, Florida which cost him everything. John McCain, badly beaten eight years later,slept soundly.
Bolton are going to a recount. Last Sunday, with a minute to go at the Reebok Stadium, they were virtually safe, given that Queens Park Rangers would be finishing their season at Manchester City. They were leading West Bromwich Albion, while at Loftus Road it was level. The Bolton defender Sam Ricketts said a colleague had just turned to go down the tunnel when he heard that QPR had taken the lead. By the time he reached the dressing room, West Bromwich were level and Bolton were in the bottom three.
Aside from being the opening act at the Glasgow Empire, there are few more daunting gigs than playing for the survival of your club and the livelihoods of those that work in it. Bolton's midfielder Chris Eagles admitted to being unusually nervous. Ricketts is more phlegmatic, partly because he has been here before. In 2009 Hull were a point clear of the relegation zone on the final day but facing Manchester United. If they lost, and Newcastle even drew at Aston Villa, they would be down.
In the end, both teams lost, and on the final whistle Ricketts' manager, Phil Brown, seized a microphone and began singing what could politely be termed a version of "Sloop John B". He does not expect Owen Coyle to do the same at Stoke.
"I'd rather not be in a relegation scrap, but the best way is to embrace it," he said. "In your quiet moments, you think about the consequences of either outcome. You have to treat the build-up to it the same as any other game. If you are doing something different, then you haven't done the right thing for the others."
Ricketts and Coyle both point out that Bolton's form is pretty good and in most other years it would have seen them scramble free. They have, however, been undone by the remarkable turnarounds at Queens Park Rangers and, especially, at Wigan Athletic.
"When you saw Wigan's results, I kept thinking, 'They can't do it again' and they did," said Ricketts. "Fair play to them; they have been the form side in the League but you couldn't possibly have anticipated it. It's the reason why we are here."
To survive, Bolton will have to repeat what Roberto Martinez's side did last season – win at the Britannia Stadium, where Stoke have not lost in the League since February. The equation is stark and straightforward. Win or go down.
"If we needed a draw, I don't know how we would have approached that equation," said Ricketts, who as the son of a world showjumping champion knows the importance of a clear round. "Would we sit back and invite pressure? A win is our minimum requirement."
Coyle, said Ricketts, is not one for great speeches, adding: "We are not a group that has to be motivated. We know the consequences."
There is probably too much talked about the impact of what a manager says in the dressing room. On the day that would determine whether Oxford United fell out of the Football League, Jim Smith made an impassioned speech about what the result would mean for the players' careers, for their reputations and their families. It didn't work, for Oxford still went down.
For Coyle, the key question may not be what he says but whom he picks. His midfielders Stuart Holden and Fabrice Muamba will be in the stands, one injured, the other almost literally back from the dead.
They will be joined by his centre-back David Wheater, while Gary Cahill, who started the season as Bolton's best defender, will be preparing for a Champions' League final with Chelsea. Mark Davies and Nigel Reo-Coker have been unable to train between matches because of injury. Eleven members of his squad, including Ricketts and Kevin Davies, perhaps Bolton's finest player since Nat Lofthouse, will find themselves out of contract on the final whistle. It is a thin, brittle but talented squad at Wanderers.
"That's the beauty of football; you will only see how they cope when they cross that white line," said Coyle. "It is not a game they should be worrying about. It is a game they should be bursting down the door to get out there. They should be telling me, 'Hang your hat on me'. When I was a player, these were the kind of games I was desperate for. If players are out of contract, they are in a strong position, because if they perform out of their skin not only are we going to want to re-sign them but half the Premier League will."
At first sight, Bolton look hopelessly equipped to deal with relegation. Their debt of £93 million is not far off that of Liverpool, who have three times the turnover. Yet the vast majority of this is "soft debt" owed to the club's owner, Eddie Davies. The fact that so many players are out of contract is an insurance policy of sorts.
On the final day of the 1996-97 season, just before they set off for Tottenham, Coventry's manager, Gordon Strachan, sat with his assistant, Gary McAllister, discussing how they would break up the squad once they were relegated, as they fully expected to be. Coyle is still buoyant, arguing that if Bolton stayed up, "With our squad there is no doubt we would be set for season after season of progress."
Strachan and Coventry survived that season but for Coyle and Bolton, the casting vote is not yet in.
Stoke City v Bolton Wanderers kicks off at 3pm this afternoon
Decision day: Relegation
Relegation: Wolves and Blackburn are down and Bolton (35pts) or QPR (37) will join them. Bolton must win at Stoke and hope QPR, who have a much better goal difference, lose at Manchester City
The history of the Premier League suggests that all is not lost if you are in the bottom three going into the final day of the season. Leaving aside the five seasons where all the relegation places were already decided, in eight years out of 14 a team outside the relegation zone have been dragged down. The eight are as follows. The first team were outside the drop zone on the final day, the second the team who escaped at their expense.
1993 Crystal Palace, Oldham
1994 Sheffield United, Everton
1997 Sunderland, Coventry
1998 Bolton, Everton
2001 Wimbledon, Bradford
2005 Norwich, West Bromwich Albion
2007 Sheffield United, Wigan
2011 Birmingham, Wigan
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