Nolan inspired by Wanderers' basic instincts

FA Cup quarter-finals: 'Keep it simple and thrive' is the Allardyce way as a dream day against the Gunners beckons
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Never mind if his week does begin with a distinctly unpalatable trip to the freezing City of Manchester Stadium and is followed by a lipsmacking FA Cup quarter-final feast in the warmth of home, there's not a Premiership footballer worth his silver spoon who wouldn't tell you that the first game is the one he's most drooling over.

Never mind if his week does begin with a distinctly unpalatable trip to the freezing City of Manchester Stadium and is followed by a lipsmacking FA Cup quarter-final feast in the warmth of home, there's not a Premiership footballer worth his silver spoon who wouldn't tell you that the first game is the one he's most drooling over.

It is part of the modern professional's well-honed act, an essential component of their conditioning that warns they must always at least appear to be preoccupied with the job closest to hand. "Points are always more important than prizes," they will assure you. "You can't afford to think further ahead than the next game," blah blah blah.

Except that Kevin Nolan gave it away at first mention of the Arsenal humdinger awaiting him around the corner. "You bet everyone here at Bolton is excited by this match and by what we can do in the Cup now there's only eight teams left," he said, with eyes at full beam. "Even the foreigners."

Ah, the foreigners, that blissfully ignorant breed who do not quite understand why we all get so worked up about a tournament which depletes yet more vital stocks of energy - and for what? A day out in Wales and only the slightest glimmer of a route into Europe's second cup?

And somewhat surprisingly for an Englishman who is more Scouse than Brookside, Nolan sympathises with his colourful collective of colleagues. "We tell them here it's a massive competition," he said, "but then they step out in the Reebok, like they did in the last round against Fulham, and there's only 16,000 there.

"I can fully understand why the fans stayed away, what with the price of season tickets and all that, but the foreign boys must wonder whether this really is as big as we make out, because when they look at the stands it doesn't seem many are interested."

Come Saturday lunchtime, they will be in for a shock. "Yeah, I reckon they might find out how big the Cup is against Ars-enal," Nolan said with a grin. "But I think they already have an idea by now of the history and everything. The gaffer's been drumming it in how much he wants to win it, and with any luck we'll have that full house which will act as our 12th man."

Many might conclude that Bolton could do with a 13th to boot, especially against an Arsenal side who by the weekend may very well find themselves out of Europe and realistically only with the Cup left to play for. "Don't say that, pal, for Christ's sake," he said, as he speculated how dangerous a bunch of wounded Gunners could be. "They're not out of the League yet, there's a long way to go. And don't go saying we've the hex over them either."

It is hard not to, however. Islington pantry doors still carry the dents of a 2-2 draw - after Arsenal were two up - in Lancashire two years ago which led to the slide that handed Manchester United the title. This season, Bolton held them at Highbury before the 1-0 victory at the Reebok in January confirmed their recent head-to-head superiority.

It also confirmed Bolton's burgeoning reputation as a team who can upset anybody. Wanderers they may be, but draws at Stamford Bridge and against Man-chester United this season prove that one-hit Wanderers they ain't. "We know that if we do the basics right and work as hard as we have been doing, then there's a fair chance that in a couple of weeks we'll be in the semi-final of the Cup and still moving up that table," Nolan said.

Much further up that table and Bolton will be deep into Uefa Cup territory, with or without that famous trophy. They stand slam-bam in the Premiership congestion zone from fifth to ninth - but if you take away a losing streak in what Nolan describes as "nightmare December", they appear to be the ones most full of running in the chasing pack. As ever, their legs are their midfield, where Nolan has almost been as ever-present as Gary Speed in Sam Allardyce's "axis of upheaval". "Nobby", as they call him, is known to be the manager's favourite as well as the fans'.

Indeed, the Nolan Blisters have become a celebrated part of Sam's set as he has not so much run his socks off as unravelled them stitch by stitch with his continual pounding of the Premiership turf; a fact acknowledged by everyone, it seems, but the England manager, who has so far not called despite Nolan's 12 goals last season, which made him Bolton's leading scorer.

Undoubtedly, the 22-year-old has a natural engine to marvel at, but his tirelessness may also have something to do with Allardyce's habit of bringing in computer data reports at half-time, pinpointing who hasn't been running enough. "A read-out before the bawl-out", as one wag put it. This is just one of the developments that make Bolton an unrecognisable place to the former trainee who signed as a 17-year-old and who has travelled so far that recently he has signed a long-term contract which has enabled him to trade in his Ferrari for a Lamborghini. "It's incredible, a totally different place. Everything, right down to the last detail, from changing rooms to training ground, to the stadium, to the way everything is approached. The mental side of it, the scientific side, just everything really."

But some things do not change. Deep down there is still the young Liverpool boy who cried red tears when his hometown club's academy rejected him. And they were out in full flow at the Millennium Stadium again last Sunday when he decided to foresake watching his own side's defeat at Newcastle to travel to the Carling Cup final. "I'm the world's worst at sitting on the sidelines, and after picking up a suspension I couldn't bear to go and watch Wanderers, especially as I really thought they'd turn Newcastle over and it would be impossible for me to win my place back. My dad kept on texting me the score, but a mate had offered me a ticket for Cardiff so I went, but I couldn't enjoy it as I was gutted that we'd been done at St James'.

"It turned out to be a bad day all round with Liverpool getting beat, but I'm glad I went, just to see the other perspective. When we lost there last year [to Middlesbrough] it was really miserable, but seeing the winning side celebrating, and all the hype that goes with it, made me more determined than ever to return."

At that his mind switched to Saturday, to Arsenal and to the one step beyond that giant hurdle that would see him back in the Welsh capital on a spring day in May. "But first we've got City on Monday," he said, reverting to type, "which is a massive, massive game and, if anything, more important than the weekend."

Yes Nobby, we believe you.

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