At the end, Sammy Lee's body language screamed release. He punched the air, hugged every one who he could come in contact with and then went down the tunnel, no doubt in search of a cold towel and a darkened room. He had won at last as Bolton Wanderers manager. After three successive defeats – and five winless games if you include last season – it was rapidly becoming not so much Little Sam as insinuations of little clue. But, just in time, Bolton triumphed under his stewardship, gaining their first points of the season, lifting themselves off the bottom of the table and even Manchester United are below them this morning. What a difference a win makes.
"Relief is the wrong word," Lee said, "but I'm very pleased, particularly for the players. I asked people to be patient after the first three games and we won't get carried away with one success, just as we didn't get carried away with three defeats."
Actually relief was precisely the right word. It swept over the Reebok crowd and was evident in the team, who defeated a jaded Reading with something to spare. The goals came from Gary Speed, Daniel Braaten and, in between, Nicolas Anelka, who has scored three times this season and whose commitment to Bolton seems to change by the hour. Lee said his performance showed his attitude to the club but earlier in the day his mouth was saying something different. "If I have to leave," he was reported as saying, "it'll be because of bad results. I want to be in a team that rivals big clubs, not one playing to finish 10th or 15th" Just the thing to bond a dressing room.
Nevertheless, Anelka, along with team-mate El Hadj Diouf, oozed class yesterday and his goal bore the hallmarks of his quality and, his detractors would say, his arrogance. Some players would have been concerned when Marcus Hahnemann got a touch to his shot in the 55th minute but not the Frenchman. He turned away, certain the ball had retained enough momentum to reach the line. It did. Just.
At the start Lee would have happily settled for 15th. Bottom of the table, he had every reason to fear Reading but the visitors arrived as shadows of the team who got a point at Old Trafford, the consequence, according to manager Steve Coppell, of "Mickey Mouse internationals". He added: "Our players had no sting in their legs."
That was evident almost immediately. Anelka wriggled along the byline and some referees might have given a penalty for Andre Bikey's challenge after 10 minutes. The Frenchman also had a glorious shot tipped away by Hahnemann after 28 minutes and Diouf would have scored if Scott Golbourne had not raced across to block his side-footed shot.
It was surprising then, that a man called "The Incredible Sulk" was not involved when Bolton took the lead after 32 minutes. Diouf took a corner on the right and Speed, rising like Nat Lofthouse in his prime, out-leaped Bryn Gunnarsson to head powerfully from the penalty spot.
Reading might have got back into the game if Shane Long had got better contact to Stephen Hunt's 52nd-minute cross, but with that the visitors melted away to allow Anelka to attack them almost at will.
Diouf, who worked hard all afternoon, delivered a through ball and Anelka's speed took him away from the centre-backs. Only Ulises de la Cruz managed to keep pace and his despairing dive merely pushed the ball beyond his goalkeeper. Anelka had only to tap the ball and, even though Hahnemann got a hand to it, it bobbled over the line.
Anelka, prowling now with all the menace of a wounded cat, also had a "goal" disallowed for offside and turned provider in stoppage time when he crossed from the left and substitute Braaten jumped acrobatically to volley in. Three goals, three points and relief at last for Lee.