Pedersen profits from big Sam's science school

Bolton v Liverpool: High-riding Danish striker given new lease of life thanks to offbeat methods of Team Allardyce
Click to follow
The Independent Football

It is the time of season when the table can tell strange tales. Up there behind Arsenal and Chelsea in third position before yesterday's Premiership games were Bolton, convincing winners of two of their opening three games, against Charlton and Southampton, and going into this afternoon's match at home to Liverpool feeling no sense of inferiority. Bolton, a force in English football, and at the vanguard too of a brave new world of sports psychology, scientific preparation and tai chi - the latter not one of Sam Allardyce's loan signings but a Chinese form of rhythmic callisthenics that has turned sceptical pros into missionary converts.

It is the time of season when the table can tell strange tales. Up there behind Arsenal and Chelsea in third position before yesterday's Premiership games were Bolton, convincing winners of two of their opening three games, against Charlton and Southampton, and going into this afternoon's match at home to Liverpool feeling no sense of inferiority. Bolton, a force in English football, and at the vanguard too of a brave new world of sports psychology, scientific preparation and tai chi - the latter not one of Sam Allardyce's loan signings but a Chinese form of rhythmic callisthenics that has turned sceptical pros into missionary converts.

It is all more Billy Elliot than Robbie Elliott, and comes as something of a shock to those of a certain generation whose enduring images of Bolton Wanderers are of hefty northern defenders with hearts of oak and thighs of teak; of men in flat caps packed into Burnden Park for derbies in the top division against Burnley and Preston; and of Nat Lofthouse battering goalkeepers into the back of the net to earn an FA Cup medal instead of the red card that would result amid the ensuing riot today.

Henrik Pedersen, the Danish attacker whose three goals in as many games have fuelled the team's impressive start, has seen the old pictures around the gleaming Reebok Stadium, but must find them as hard to relate to as the more recent impression of a struggling club yo-yoing between the divisions. In three years he has known only Bolton's longest spell at the highest level of the English game since the early 1960s. Now, after finishing eighth last season and reaching the Carling Cup final, the target has to be another serious attempt at qualifying for Europe.

"The feeling in the squad is the same as last year," Pedersen said after taking part in a Friday-afternoon shooting session at the Reebok. "We thought we were better than the media made us out to be. Other seasons, we were expected to go down, but now we're expected to stay up and we have that pressure to deal with. We went to the [Carling] cup final and were only three or four points behind a European place in the League. So our aim has to be even higher."

Last season's form and this season's goals have even brought a possible return to his national team for Pedersen, summoned into the squad for next weekend's game with Ukraine almost four years after winning his only cap against the Faroe Islands. A threatened strike by all Danish- league players has not harmed his chances, either. "For me the biggest thing you can play for is your country. If you don't have any ambition for that you might as well stop playing. As a striker, sometimes you have a good run of goals, and I'm on that kind of run now. Now it's up to me to keep on going."

There is every incentive to do so for a player in the last year of his contract, with no talks yet about a renewal; all the more so as he looks round the penalty area during shooting practice and sees not only his current attacking partner, Kevin Davies, but new signings Michael Bridges, Les Ferdinand and, from Liverpool, El Hadji Diouf. "It's something you have to get used to and it's part of the game. People come and people go."

They certainly do at Bolton; though a noticeable recent trend is the increase in the number of British players in the squad, joined this summer by Gary Speed from Newcastle. Eighteen months ago, there was not an Englishman in the side who ensured survival in the Premiership and doomed the opposition by beating West Ham. Allardyce had taken the short-term view in securing foreign players on short contracts, many of them, such as Youri Djorkaeff, Jay-Jay Okocha and Ivan Campo, then surprising observers by their willingness to stay.

One signing who has received less publicity than most is a Chinese lady called Ching My, part of the army of back-up staff at the club. She is the tai chi instructor, whose sessions of stretching and agility work have won over Pedersen. "I can only say positive things about it. I had problems pre-season, especially with a groin injury, but tai chi has helped a lot. When you're doing it, it feels really strange, because there are so many funny positions that I didn't think the body could be in. She's been doing it all her life and tries teaching us the same things. I used to be really stiff and not loose as a player. We do it in a group session after a game or a weights session, and some like me do some extra sessions. Every morning I do half an hour, and I don't have any more pain in my groin."

It is another area of unexpected innovation by Allardyce, once a centre-half of what might politely be termed the old school. But, as with his initial preference for foreign players - "cheaper and technically better" - Dudley Man has proved a surprising operator. "He's very forward-looking," Pedersen says, "with new ideas all the time to improve the squad and getting in new people."

On one famous occasion last December, the Friday-morning tactics session was even abandoned in favour of snooker, pool and darts. Result: Chelsea 1 Bolton 2, a victory for the teamwork that Pedersen believes is behind his side's success: "It's not always the teams with the best players and biggest stars who win. Sometimes it's a team performance."

Liverpool beware. Team Allardyce are ready.

Comments