Lofthouse nods his approval

As Bolton Wanderers prepare to move to a new venue in Horwich this summer, Guy Hodgson meets the 'Lion of Vienna', the England centre- forward whose exploits abroad never diminished his affection for what has always been home - Burnden Park
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You do not need to be in your 50s to know what Nat Lofthouse means to Burnden Park, the mascot says it all. "Lofty" is a lion and in Bolton no amplification is necessary. A bull may be more natural in terms of alliteration, a horse more pertinent to Wanderers' nickname of the "Trotters", but if a man-stuffed animal suit is deemed necessary then the king of the jungle is a natural choice.

Lofthouse, nicknamed the "Lion of Vienna" after two goals against Austria in 1952, is as Bolton now as cotton was when he signed for the club the day after the Second World War broke out as a 14-year-old. He never played for or managed any other club and, as president now, Burnden Park is as much a part of him as he is part of it.

When the club moves to Horwich this summer, he will be displaced more than anyone. Part of the pitch will be nurtured in his garden but the scene of his memories will be bulldozed away in the pursuit of progress. Yet he welcomes the change. "It'll be a sad day," he said, "but a happy one too. You have to adapt with the times.

"Some of the die-hard fans don't want to move but I think once we get there, particularly if we are in the Premiership, they'll get used to it. I'm sure they all think: 'This is nice. This is comfortable. This is our home.' When I was born my parents had a little two-up, two-down with a toilet in the back yard. Now they build houses with two toilets, one en-suite. Things have moved on."

Lofthouse first became acquainted with Burnden before he reached his teens, climbing up a drainpipe to sit on the old IPA Bar, which was knocked down to make way for a supermarket in 1986. That halved the Railway End terrace, a piece of football architecture notorious for the disaster of 1946 when 33 people died in a crush that would have an awful and louder echo at Hillsborough 40 years later.

Lofthouse was by the referee as the dreadful news of what was happening behind one of the goals was brought to the pitch. "I believe those people over there," a stone-faced police officer said, pointing to the bodies being placed on the ground, "are dead." When the match restarted to appease an angry crowd unaware of what was happening, the Bolton and Stoke players had to file past corpses laid to rest in the dressing room area.

"It was a sad day," Lofthouse remembers. "But I think the referee did the right thing restarting the game. You couldn't think about kicking a football, your mind was on those poor people. They had died in the stand where I had used to climb in and if I'd not been a player it might have been me."

Apart from 9 March 1946, the feelings Lofthouse has for Burnden are unreservedly warm. "I have good memories from almost every time I ran out there," he said. "It's a lovely club this. I know it sounds daft but I think it's the best in the world. It was a marvellous feeling when we brought the FA Cup back to the town in 1958."

There were also overtones of tragedy about that triumph as Bolton beat a Manchester United team at Wembley that had performed a miracle to reach the final three months after the Munich air disaster destroyed the Busby Babes. Lofthouse admits that if he had been anything other than a Wanderers player or supporter, he would have wanted the opposition to win that day. He became the villain of the piece, too, bundling Harry Gregg into the net with a shoulder charge for a goal that is still bitterly disputed.

The two protagonists that day are firm friends - "Anyone who thinks we are deadly enemies does not know Harry Gregg, he is far too much of a sportsman for that" - but Lofthouse admits he is glad he got another, more legitimate, goal that day to make the score 2-0, and he prefers to reflect on earlier matches in the Cup run.

"They were good games, hard games, where you were glad when the final whistle went. I remember beating Wolves 2-1 here and we were the luckiest team alive that day. They murdered us. In the last 20 minutes I didn't touch the ball, I just watched our defence hang on. Yet we went on to win the Cup."

That was Bolton's last major honour although "Lofty the Lion" did become mascot of the year recently - a back-handed tribute to the town's greatest son. Burnden, the past, is about to be deserted and Horwich, a new stadium and the future beckon. In Bolton's case, you suspect home is where Lofthouse is.

'POUND FOR POUND THE BEST GROUND OF ITS SIZE IN EUROPE'

Diversion has been a theme at the site of Bolton Wanderers' new stadium in Horwich. The course of a stream had to be altered before the foundations could be laid, while the torrent of interested supporters has been directed towards a visitors centre to keep them out of the hair of the builders.

You can hardly blame fans - around 2,000 a week - for being interested. The new 25,000-seat stadium is not due to be ready until August but the skeleton of the stands is visible from the M61 motorway. It will be, the club say, pound for pound, the best ground of its size in Europe.

Certainly Bolton have not scrimped when it comes to their new home. Sited around five miles from Burnden Park, the stadium built in conjunction with the local council and private enterprise will cost around pounds 25m, which on a cost-per-seat basis makes it around twice the price of similar developments. In simple terms it means the seats will be wider and the leg room greater.

"It has been designed for comfort,'' Dave Murphy, the project manager for the constructors, Birse, said. "The club is mindful of the disaster at Burnden Park in 1946 and, having decided to move home, one of their chief priorities has been safety.''

The new ground, which has not been given a name yet, will incorporate banqueting facilities, an exhibition hall and a sports injury clinic, while the whole site will also include a cinema and a supermarket. There will also be parking for 5,000 cars and there are plans for a new railway station.

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