Bolton Wanderers 1 Manchester United 0: United cut down on day of the assassin

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The Independent Online

It was easy for the football nation to be told, as they were at least by implication by a touted head coach for England, Alan Shearer, that Sir Alex Ferguson had donned his black hat again when complaining so strenuously to referee Mark Clattenburg about the methods adopted by Bolton that he was packed off to the stand. Easy to pop up the Fergie caricature, perhaps, but apparently rather more difficult to draw the line between assiduous application and something that at times carried at least a whiff of assassination.

However, Shearer, and his fellow BBC pundit Mark Lawrenson, thoroughly endorsed the strong-arm approach which new Bolton manager Gary Megson defended for its "work rate, desire – and honesty."

And yet, still, some wonder why we live in the football culture which was picked off so easily and ultimately mocked by Croatia at Wembley a few days ago.

Megson, though, probably does not deserve a mountain of excoriation for making progress in this same culture which turned his predecessor but one, Sam Allardyce, into a cult figure way beyond the moors of Lancashire.

We know where Allardyce's football has currently marooned him – among Newcastle fans who, despite all their training, cannot quite grasp the scale of ineptitude displayed by their team – but Megson could not have had a more basic briefing when he signed on with Bolton. Get us out of trouble, get the show back on the road and don't worry about the aesthetics, he was told in so many words.

Where Ferguson undoubtedly had a point – and it was one which had the poison removed by his admission that his team at no point deserved to win – was that if you invest in the finest talent, if you always attempt to play the kind of game that only Croatia exhibited in that vital match, a little bit more official protection is not asking too much. Bolton's Kevin Davies, for example, did more than enough for a red card in a series of cynical assaults on Patrice Evra.

The full-back, who despite all his harassment at times suggested he might be the United man to break the deadlock, was certainly good philosophical value after the game.

He declared: "It was the same last year when he [Davies] kicked me as well. I said to him then, 'Why do you do a tackle like that?' and he said, 'Because I don't like you.' I don't understand it. I think his first tackle on me should have been a red card. I don't know what the problem is with Davies because I don't know him."

Maybe Evra will take comfort from the fact that indeed it isn't personal – and that's more or less official. Megson also said: "I believe in getting good players organised and having a right good go."

No question about Bolton being well organised, and still less about them having a good go. Evra took most of the flak, but Carlos Tevez, who promised a lot more than he achieved, Louis Saha and Nani all received serious discouragement for any light-hearted indulgence in their finest skills from Abdoulaye Meite, Ivan Campo and El Hadji Diouf, all of whom might have found their names in the referee's book alongside their team-mates Kevin Nolan, Nicky Hunt and, inevitably, Davies.

What can be exasperating, though perhaps not surprising in their current situation, is that Bolton are capable of mining nuggets of excellence.

Campo is not a Bolton folk hero for nothing. He may not be the last word in athleticism, but his vision and his touch can be remarkable at times; if Bolton so often put on the capes of assassins, he suggests that beneath the surface he is ready for more polite occasions. His cleverly flighted early free-kick left young Gerard Pique, a nervous replacement for the rock-like Nemanja Vidic, in a fever of indecision and Nicolas Anelka coolly put away the ball that dropped at his accomplished feet.

It was only when United brought on the lively and skilful Anderson on the hour that Bolton were pushed on to their back feet. The industrious Tevez threw away a perfect chance to equalise when the buffeted but still tireless and biting Evra got to the line and turned in a perfectly measured cross. Owen Hargreaves, diligent but ultimately uninspired, drove a shot just over the bar, but from such as Ryan Giggs, Saha and Michael Carrick there was next to nothing in the way of genuine penetration.

It was certainly not a day for Ferguson to invite too close an interrogation on his recent claim that he now boasts his best-ever squad. Denied Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and the relentless Vidic, United look thin to the point of insubstantial – certainly nothing like as authoritative as a Chelsea without such as John Terry and Joe Cole when they, a few weeks ago down the road, simply swatted Wigan.

Still, United's blip – for such it was, claimed Ferguson at the end of a run of nine straight Premier League victories – certainly signalled some regained status for the previously embattled Wanderers. Megson insisted that, despite the United manager's rage, he had nothing for which to apologise.

"I asked them to be aggressive, yes, but I think we only had one [bad] tackle. We have to compete and I'm not going to criticise them for competing. There would be a lot more complaints from myself if we did not compete. I know we have the squad to get us out of trouble."

Bolton surely do. They also have some players good enough to produce a little more football, but then what comes first – playing a game of "chicken" with more expensive opponents or the broken eggs?

With referees as tolerant as Mr Clattenburg, you have to suspect that it will be rather more of the latter.

Goal: Anelka (11) 1-0.

Bolton Wanderers (4-5-1): Jaaskelainen; Hunt, Meite, O'Brien, Gardner; Davies (Speed, 70), Guthrie (Wilhelmsson, 74), Campo, Nolan (McCann, 83), Diouf; Anelka. Substitutes not used: Al Habsi (gk), Michalik.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Saar; Brown (O'Shea, 88), Ferdinand, Pique (Anderson, 59), Evra; Nani, Hargreaves, Carrick, Giggs; Saha, Tevez. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Fletcher, Eagles.

Referee: M Clattenburg (Tyne and Weir). Booked: Bolton Wanderers Nolan, Davies, Hunt.

Man of the match: Campo.

Attendance: 25,028.

Lion Cub?

Danny Guthrie (Bolton)

Having been frozen out at Anfield by such foreigners as Xabi, Lucas, Babel and Sissoko, Bolton's 20-year-old on-loan midfielder showed plenty of nerve – and an impressive level of craft – in the 1-0 defeat of Manchester United.