In the days before he protected himself with a blanket of blandness, Sir Alex Ferguson allowed himself to speculate on who might succeed him as manager of Manchester United. He thought Bryan Robson the likeliest candidate. It was a different Bryan Robson, the man whose achievement had been to make Middlesbrough suddenly glamorous. Soon his reputation would begin to splinter and shatter in the way Owen Coyle, the Bolton manager, would recognise.
A year ago, when Liverpool's owners were searching for a young manager to inherit the chaos into which Anfield was drifting, he seemed as good a choice as Andre Villas-Boas or Jürgen Klopp and he would have been considerably cheaper. Brendan Flood, who recruited him to manage Burnley, said after his first conversation with him that there was something of Bill Shankly about Coyle. "He is interested in only two things," said Burnley's joint operational director. "His family and football." This morning, Coyle stands on the brink and should Bolton lose at Ewood Park tonight the mechanism is already in place to bring Mark Hughes to the Reebok Stadium.
There are not many clubs that can take relegation but Bolton are almost uniquely ill-equipped to cope. They have survived in the Premier League for a decade and lately they have done so by accumulating vast debt, which last month was declared at £110m – double their annual turnover.
Their 2009-10 wage bill swallowed 86 per cent of revenue and, like tonight's opponent's Blackburn, they are utterly dependent on the revenues from Sky, which accounts for nearly three quarters of their income. They raise less from match days and commercial deals than almost any other comparable club.
Last season only Wigan and Blackpool had cheaper tickets and Bolton's shirt sponsorship contract with 188 Bet is worth half of the £1.5m deal that Blackburn negotiated with Crown Paints. It is these figures as much as their total of nine points from 16 matches that are pushing Bolton's chairman, Phil Gartside – who has always fiercely supported Coyle but who crucially does not own the club – to begin making plans for the succession.
You can date Bolton's decline to the debacle of the FA Cup semi-final against Stoke. Regimes can be undone by a single match; a decade ago, Peter Taylor was a young, confident manager, who was considered seriously as England material. He had taken Leicester briefly to the top of the Premier League and then he lost a banal, straightforward FA Cup tie to Wycombe. Neither he nor his club ever recovered; soon he was gone and not long afterwards Leicester were relegated.
The semi-final was not banal: it was at Wembley and Stoke won it 5-0. Bolton recovered to beat Arsenal and then lost their last fives games, hurtling down the table at the cost of £800,000 per place. Then came summer. Nigel Reo-Coker confessed to laughing out loud when he saw the fixture list that included both Manchester clubs, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal among the opening seven games. It was the most difficult beginning of any Premier League side. Reo-Coker remarked that this made the pressure on the remaining fixtures intense.
Because of Bolton's frantic requirement to cut costs, a great swathe of players are out of contract at the end of the season and know they will probably leave whatever happens. "Dinghy men" Brian Kidd called them as Blackburn slithered towards relegation in 1999.
Gary Cahill, mentally at least, has long been paddling away. Coyle admitted his head had been turned by the summer attentions of first Arsenal and then Chelsea. His form has suffered and he will almost certainly be sold in the January transfer window as Gartside recognises that this is when a high-quality footballer who has no previous ties to the Champions League can extract the maximum price. Without him, Bolton's defence will be even more shoddy and threadbare than it is now. They have already conceded more goals from crosses and corners than anyone else and Blackburn's primitive tactics of lumping the ball up to Yakubu or Chris Samba may find their ideal victim.
When Coyle looks around his dressing room at Ewood tonight, you wonder how many of his players he can trust. Stuart Holden and Chung-yong Lee, two of his most committed midfielders, are long-term injured. Kevin Davies, who can claim to be ranked alongside Nat Lofthouse among Bolton's finest servants, is not the force he was.
Coyle's skills as a coach and the style of football he espoused meant Arsène Wenger and Carlo Ancelotti were happy to loan him Jack Wilshere and Daniel Sturridge, offers that would not have been made to Gary Megson or Sam Allardyce. Coyle's friendship with Villas-Boas was not enough to keep Sturridge at the Reebok and Gaël Kakuta is no kind of replacement.
As the season has fallen apart, Reo-Coker and Davies have publicly urged the club to return to their old in-your-face style perfected by Allardyce. Coyle, however, has never won ugly. As Burnley's season soured, just before he abandoned them for the Reebok, the club became convinced Coyle had no Plan B and there has been no sign of one now.
"We needed alternative tactics against different teams," said Brendan Flood. "We were too programmed to play one way." Coyle's decision to leave Turf Moor in January last year was, said Flood, "a hospital pass which hardly helped us to stay up."
Much to the discomfiture of his former employers, Coyle has been adept at choosing the moment of his own departure. Now, it appears unlikely he will have any choice. Sometimes he has the appearance of a stressed George Clooney and this is his perfect storm.Reuse content