It was going so well for Owen Coyle and Bolton Wanderers. Until their FA Cup semi-final at Wembley Stadium in April, when all hope of glory was extinguished in a haze of humiliation. They have yet to recover, it would appear, from the numbing experience of their 5-0 defeat against Stoke City.
Since that day, Bolton have plummeted. From eighth place in the Premier League to a finish of 14th last season; from potential mid-table contenders this season to bottom-of-the-table scrappers. Since their Wembley whipping, they have played 22 matches, winning four and losing 18. Where has it all gone wrong, Owen?
Coyle, the realist that he is, takes it on the chin. He has enjoyed the good times since succeeding Gary Megson as manager at the Reebok Stadium in January last year, first rescuing Bolton from the relegation mire and then leading them to the brink of a first Cup Final in 53 years.
But he will front up during the bad times, too. He may feel the parochial pressure ahead of the Lancastrian dust-up with Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park tomorrow night but he remains defiant. Bolton, he maintains, can still exorcise any lingering Wembley demons.
"I've been fortunate," Coyle said. "I've had a lot of nice things said about us and a lot of nice things have happened to us. It's a horrible time now but what I do know is that we will come through the other side. And it won't be for the lack of effort, that's for sure. Yes, Blackburn is our biggest game of the season. Absolutely. If we can get a good result, I know it can give us a platform to kick on."
A mass of injuries to key players may partly explain Bolton's predicament. Yet the tame manner in which they lost to Fulham at Craven Cottage on Saturday – a fifth successive defeat confirmed by goals, in the space of 66 first-half seconds, from Clint Dempsey and Bryan Ruiz – suggests a deeper malaise.
If so, Coyle will address that also. "If we had our best team available, we'd be in the top 10," he said. "But the bottom line is that what we do have available is still capable of performing better than what we're doing. There's one or two [players] who are fragile but they have got to stand up and be counted."
Fulham recovered energetically from their stoppage-time Europa League exit against Odense BK three days earlier. "It was the perfect response to that disappointment," David Stockdale, their goalkeeper, said. "We needed to turn it around and we did. We kept things tight and showed a lot of character."
Character is what Coyle's underachievers will need in abundance against Blackburn. They showed little of it at Wembley in mid-April – a match that still evokes bitter memories – and cannot afford a repeat display at Ewood Park tomorrow. Should it happen, that might haunt them for some time, too.
Scorers: Fulham Dempsey 32, Ruiz 34.
Substitutes: Fulham None. Bolton Steinsson 5 (Boyata, h-t), Eagles 5 (Pratley, h-t), Ngog 4
(Davies, 56). Booked: Fulham Murphy. Bolton Reo-Coker, Muamba, Steinsson.
Man of the match Johnson. Match rating 6/10.
Possession: Fulham 50% Bolton 50%.
Attempts on target: Fulham 9 Bolton 6.
Referee C Foy (Merseyside).
Attendance 25,643.Reuse content