When Gary Speed first played against Liverpool, they were champions as well as the club he had hated as an Everton-mad paper boy in north Wales. On the day he marked his 750th appearance in club football with a goal and an inspirational performance for Bolton Wanderers, the title looked no more likely to return to Anfield than in the intervening 16 years.
As one of just three survivors from the first day of the Premier League (with Ryan Giggs and David James), Speed is steeped in its psychological battles. The midfielder, 37, knew that Liverpool, and their manager, Rafael Benitez, in particular, had lost this one to Bolton's Sam Allardyce - and with it a third successive away match without scoring.
By characterising Speed and company as a latter-day Wimbledon, with all its connotations of long-ball brutalism, Benitez handed his Bolton counterpart a gift. The Spaniard may also have planted uncertainty in his own team, who lacked the conviction to turn possession into chances and the resilience to recover from a controversial opener.
"It's a compliment for Liverpool to say they don't like the way we play," Speed said. "If you want to play fancy football against them, you'll get beaten nine times out of 10. We could do that, get beaten 4-3 and have everyone pat us on the back. But it wouldn't get us any points."
Allardyce had followed time-honoured practice by pinning Benitez's remarks on the dressing-room wall. The likes of Speed and his fellow scorer, Ivan Campo, he said, were "proud and talented players" who had been "wound up" by what they read. "It may have given them that extra 'woomph'," he added, "as if to say, 'Don't talk about us like that'."
The Bolton manager expressed surprise that someone as experienced as Benitez should have made such comments. There was little, he observed, to separate the sides in fouls committed or tackles made, yet he clearly enjoys exploiting the unease that the leading clubs feel about visiting the Reebok Stadium. "We call it the fear factor, and we try not to disappoint them when they get here."
Behind the bluster, Bolton are far from one-dimensional, if not top-six material. Though the whole is bigger than the sum of the parts, they have a fine goalkeeper, a burgeoning centre-back partnership and the craft of Speed and Campo. Nicolas Anelka alone did not play his role to perfection and would do well to study the tireless industry of Kevin Davies - as Thierry Henry reputedly does - if he is to justify Allardyce's outlay.
Benitez bemoaned a free-kick against Jose Reina, a referee's assistant having wrongly signalled that the goalkeeper had handled the ball outside the 18-yard box. However dubious the decision, Liverpool defended shabbily to let in Speed's ensuing shot, and again when Campo, who is no Nat Lofthouse, buried the third header Reina had conceded in four days.
They were Bolton's only efforts on target, as against 13 by Liverpool - the corner count was one to 11 - but Allardyce's assertion that "entertaining means winning" had its vindication in the rapture of the home supporters. Whereas he can justify that stance by reference to relatively slender resources, Anfield would not accept such logic.
On the thorny subject of Liverpool's away form, Benitez wanted "to analyse my team for two more months to see whether we need to improve". That may prove a luxury too far, even in a more open title race. In the mean time, the Spaniard could actually learn from Bolton. They do not serially rotate players because they do not have the numbers, but they do have continuity. In contrast, Steven Gerrard was in left midfield here and Peter Crouch on the bench days after the best goal of his career.
It summed up Liverpool's day that the best man in red, following a shirt swap, was an Evertonian. Speed's manager, eager to accentuate a positive after his recent problems, hailed his all-round game as equal to any in the Premiership. "At this rate," Allardyce said, "he could play until he's 40."
Goals: Speed (30) 1-0; Campo (51) 2-0.
Bolton Wanderers (4-1-4-1): Jaaskelainen; Hunt, Faye, Meite, Ben Haim; Campo; Diouf (Giannakopoulos, 87), Nolan, Speed, Davies; Anelka (Vaz Te, 84). Substitutes not used: Walker (gk), Tal, Fojut.
Liverpool (4-4-2): Reina; Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Riise; Pennant (Luis Garcia, 58), Alonso, Sissoko (Zenden, 75), Gerrard; Kuyt (Crouch, 49), Bellamy. Substitutes not used: Dudek (gk), Agger.
Referee: P Dowd (Staffordshire).
Booked: Bolton Wanderers Faye, Speed; Liverpool Crouch.
Man of the match: Speed.
Attendance: 25,061.Reuse content