'The drop could set us back two to five years'

The fight for survival: Bolton manager spells out doomsday scenario but invests hope in his men of great import
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For Sam Allardyce, this past week has been the longest of his management career. "It's almost like you're in limbo," he said, pondering the protracted countdown to the Premiership D-Day for his Bolton team today. "You're waiting for the game as every day ticks by. It occupies your mind all the time. It drains you. It's like a thorn in your side, jabbing away."

For Sam Allardyce, this past week has been the longest of his management career. "It's almost like you're in limbo," he said, pondering the protracted countdown to the Premiership D-Day for his Bolton team today. "You're waiting for the game as every day ticks by. It occupies your mind all the time. It drains you. It's like a thorn in your side, jabbing away."

So not quite like it was back in 1991, then, when Big Sam started out in the management game, chasing (and successfully grasping) the League of Ireland championship with Limerick? "Ah, but I was collecting money then with Father Joe Young [Limerick's clerical chairman] on a Friday night just to pay the players' wages," the laughing Allardyce reflected. "That was a different pressure. They had to get enough money to pay for the flight for me to come back, never mind stay in the Premiership."

Twelve years on, the managerial mission for Allardyce is to keep his Wanderers in England's top flight. The stakes have risen from collection-tin money to something like £20m – and that would only be the immediate cost of Big Sam's boys dropping out of the big league. "If we don't stay in the Premiership," he said, reluctantly contemplating the doomsday scenario of failing to finish ahead of West Ham and above the relegation trapdoor, "the devastation of having to get rid of everybody and dismantle everything we've built would set us back two to five years. It might take that long to try to get back.

"These days you can't keep your squad together for one year and rely on your Premiership 'parachute' money and have a go to get straight back up. The club did it once before: it went back down, kept the same team together and came back up as champions. You can't do that any more. You have to dismantle the team now, because of the financial implications. You have to dismantle it and start all over again and make sure you don't fall into administration. That's the sad thing you're left with as a manager now, which is devastating.

"But the dividing line that we're on at the moment means that if we are successful on Sunday I believe we're in the position where this club could go on to be a Premiership club for many years. It's in the position to do that if it wants to because it's cleared the way for new signings to strengthen the Premiership squad, without having the fall-back of people on contracts here who are maybe surplus to requirements. That isn't the case any more."

The nett result leaves an awful lot riding on the result at the Reebok Stadium today. If Bolton beat Middlesbrough they will stay up, regardless of West Ham's fate against Birmingham at St Andrew's. Both clubs have 41 points but Bolton have a better goal difference (by a margin of six). They also have a home advantage and, in Allardyce's opinion, a potentially vital edge in the shape of the legionnaires who have been crudely portrayed as foreign mercenaries threatening to deprive West Ham's bright young English things of some top-flight birthright in their homeland.

"I don't think my players need to use those kind of comments to their advantage," the Bolton manager said. "I think they're above anything like that. They have such a vast experience of football, throughout Europe and in other countries. They've dealt with much bigger games than this in their career histories. Some of them have played in World Cup finals and Champions' League finals.

"It is a bigger game for us as a club, but I wouldn't think it would feel bigger for them. I wouldn't think the pressure of Sunday afternoon and a full Reebok Stadium would be bigger than going out to play for Real Madrid in the European Cup final or playing in a World Cup final for France against Brazil. That experience could help them in producing their best qualities in a nervous and tense situation. You're going to need cool heads. You're going to need controlled emotions to get through on Sunday."

The control that Youri Djorkaeff and Jay-Jay Okocha can exercise with the ball at their feet could also prove vital for a Bolton team likely to feature 10 overseas players. The same can be said of the steadying influence brought to bear at the back by Gudni Bergsson.

The Bolton captain is certainly no fly-by-night foreigner. He has been playing in England's top division since the World Cup contest of 1988 (a friend of his father, the agent of Miss Iceland, recommended him to the agent of Miss Ireland, a close friend of Terry Venables, who took him on trial then signed him for Tottenham). At 37, though, the Premiership's longest-serving import will be playing his final club match today. Bergsson returns to his native Reykjavik this week to play two matches for Iceland and then make his living as a lawyer.

The central defender has been to the brink with Bolton before on the final day of the Premiership season – and been pushed beyond. He was in the team relegated on goal difference in 1998, after they lost 2-0 at Chelsea and Everton drew 1-1 at home to Coventry (with a goal, ironically, by Gareth Farrelly, a member of the Bolton squad this afternoon).

"In this situation, when you're playing for your Premiership place, you would always want to be at home," Bergsson said. "We didn't have that luxury in '98 and we didn't have a better goal difference than Everton. So those parts of the equation are with us this time. We know it's going to be a tough game, with a lot of tension, but the feeling within the club is positive."

Whatever happens, Bergsson will be waving goodbye to Bolton. He is thinking of taking a Phoenix Nights video with him to remind him of the six years he has spent in Peter Kay's town. He only hopes his beloved Wanderers won't be left needing to rise from the Premiership ashes once again.

Fit to drop? How they match up

Bolton Wanderers

Manager: Sam Allardyce: has forged great team spirit despite exotic mix of nationalities.

Key men: Gudni Bergsson: 37-year-old defender retires after the game after exceptional season. Doesn't train. Has massage and acupuncture. Jay-Jay Okocha: Capable of winning any game on his own as the Nigerian showed spectacularly against West Ham. Youri Djorkaeff: French World Cup winner has worked hard for the team. Key figure in dead-ball situations.

Form: Unbeaten at home in their last six games and rattled Man United and Arsenal.

West Ham United

Manager: Trevor Brooking: management's a breeze after two victories since temporarily replacing Glenn Roeder.

Key men: David James: The England keeper has been in good form recently but will need to be on his toes against Christophe Dugarry. Joe Cole: will be up for the challenge as he loves the club with a passion. His skills in the engine room crucial. Paolo Di Canio: The maverick Italian marked his comeback with the winner against Chelsea. He will want to leave the club in style.

Form: Three successive wins, 11 points from six games.