Stubbs learning the rules of pass and move

FOOTBALL: The creative tyro who got left behind talks to Glenn Moore about the debt he owes Bolton managers past and present
Click to follow
The Independent Online
This summer Alan Stubbs appeared to be a footballer whose time had come. He was a promising creative defender at a moment when the English game was finally grasping the need to have "starters", as well as "stoppers", at the core of their teams.

Three months on that need is even more acute. While Ruud Gullit demonstrates how it should be done in the domestic game, Terry Venables is struggling to teach his defenders to "step into midfield" in the international one. In Europe our champions are exposed as an anachronistic embarrassment.

But for Stubbs time is standing still. His well-publicised desire for a move has not been fulfilled. Instead he remains at Bolton, attempting to shield a defence which has yet to keep a clean sheet in the Premiership.

On Monday Bolton meet Arsenal in a televised match which is loaded with poignancy. Arsenal are now managed by Bruce Rioch, the man who guided Bolton from the Second Division to the Premiership and developed Stubbs into a player of note.

During the summer it was widely assumed that Rioch would return to Burnden Park to prise away both Stubbs and Jason McAteer, the other tyro behind Wanderers' rise.

Instead Rioch left his old club alone and Stubbs was lined up to move to Blackburn in a joint deal with McAteer. Then McAteer moved to Liverpool, and Stubbs was left at Burnden Park. His desire to leave had not gone down well with supporters who booed him. Nor did the transfer speculation please the club, who briefly dropped him to clear his mind.

Stubbs is now back in the side, but playing as a midfield anchor in front of the back four. It is a position in which he is likely to encounter the deep-lying Dennis Bergkamp on Monday night.

"I am there to help the team," he said at a hotel near his Liverpool home this week, "but I do not want to be there permanently. As long as I feel I am doing okay I do not mind, it will help my game. But if my form started to dip I would have to go in and see about returning to centre- half."

With Bolton having taken one point from 15, Roy McFarland and Colin Todd, the managerial team, moved Stubbs into midfield for a tricky Coca-Cola Cup tie at Brentford. Bolton won 3-2 and have since come within five minutes of beating Everton and seconds from drawing at Nottingham Forest.

"They want me to give a bit more strength to the back four and help start things. They want me to have the ball all the time. If I am going to play well I need to have the ball all the time. They want me to mix up my game, to play a lot of short balls and long balls when I see them."

Against Leicester in the Coca-Cola Cup on Tuesday night Stubbs certainly got plenty of the ball. He made a staggering 50 passes, only six of which failed to find their man or win a throw-in. Most of the wayward passes were also the ambitious ones - keeping possession was not a problem for Stubbs, opening up a deep and organized Leicester defence was more difficult. It was the sort of game Barry Venison played for Newcastle and England last season, but Bolton did not have a Peter Beardsley.

Even so, Stubbs' desire for the ball is unusual among defenders, as is his passing ability and control. No surprise, then, to discover he is a late convert to the black art of defence.

"I played in midfield when I first came to the club. As a kid I used to imagine I was Glenn Hoddle, he had such great touch, awareness and vision. But I also admired Alan Hansen and, after about three years of playing in both positions with Bolton, I settled at centre-half. I think that is my best position."

Stubbs, who was 24 this month, started on the left-wing as a boy, playing with the Kirkby under-11s as a nine-year-old. With that background, and his influences, it is easier to see why he has become an unusually adept defender. However, his youthful promise would not have been realised if he had not been fortunate in his managers, first Phil Neal, then Rioch, Todd and McFarland.

Neal was Bolton's manager when Stubbs broke into the then-Third Division side in 1990. "He was the first manager to ask me to play centre-half. He always encouraged us to play football and that was a blessing. If we had had a manager who just wanted me to boot it, you would not see me doing the things I do now."

Two years later Rioch took over and soon moved Stubbs into the back four for good (until now). "All the time he would say to me 'get the ball and start the attacks. If there is space ahead of you - go into it, do not just pass it, take it into the space first'. Stubbs did this twice against Leicester - who left very little space anywhere. On one occasion he drew the defender before feeding John McGinlay, on the other he had a shot himself.

Rioch's partner, Todd, was equally influential. "There was one occasion when he he pulled me aside and said: 'Never change your style of play. You will go a long way if you keep playing the way you do'. That was a massive influence on me, he had such a reputation as a player. It was a big compliment.

"For years most managers wanted defenders to just defend but more and more now want defenders to play from the back and start attacks. That is good for me because that is the way I play. More young players are playing from the back. That is good for the game. If you look at the Italians they have centre-halves who can play centre-forward and vice-versa."

Stubbs has seen Rioch once this season, at Bolton's match at Villa Park. "At the time there was a lot of speculation about me going to Arsenal, so I did not really talk to him in case people made something of it. I just shook his hand and said: 'How are you'. He said to me: 'Keep playing'."

That speculation has quietened, not least because of Arsenal's excellent defensive record. There is also a feeling that, good as Stubbs is, Bolton's pounds 4.5m asking price is at least pounds 1m too high. Stubbs, after all, is uncapped (except at B level) and unproven in the Premiership.

The player appears to have accepted he is staying at Bolton for the time being and is at present discussing a new contract (the current one runs to the end of next season). There is, however, likely to be an escape- clause in case Bolton are relegated.

"It will not be any good for me if Bolton were to go down and I was back in the First Division. If I am to get on I have to play against the best players and they are in the Premier League.

"I have had some great times at the club, I went there from school at 16. I have never regretted a moment, they have been brilliant to me and I would like to think I have paid that back with my performances on the pitch.

"The start of the season was unsettling. I had set my heart on moving - with all the speculation I thought it was just a matter of time. But that is all gone now, all I want to do is play football and try and keep Bolton up. I feel I am a stronger player for all that has gone on."

That includes the criticism he received from supporters. "A lot of them would make the same decision if they were in my shoes - but if I was in theirs I would probably react as they did. It was only a few but you would be surprised how many things you can hear when you are on the pitch. I had a lot of great letters asking me to stay - but wishing me all the best in the future if I do not. It was nice to get them because it was not the best of times.

"With the Blackburn deal it was always both or none. Once Jason heard Liverpool were interested it was just a matter of time. It was his boyhood dream, you cannot stop someone - it would have been like Everton coming in for me.

"He had come out of the meeting at Blackburn and said: 'It sounds good' but I think he was in awe of Kenny Dalglish. Kenny is God to Jason because of what he has done at Liverpool. "He asked me: 'What should I do?' and I said to him: 'Jason, you have got to go. If you did not sign for Liverpool it would be the biggest regret of your life.'

"A lot of people have said to me: 'Do you still talk to Jason?' They think it was his fault I have not left. But I do not look at it like that. Jason and I are still best mates - we were room-mates for years. He is on the phone to me every other day."

They must be interesting calls. Stubbs, who grew up in "a rough part" makes a point of staying close to his old friends, even though the differences in status and income - 'some of my mates are not working' - could make it difficult.

This time Stubbs is the one without. While McAteer chases titles and European glory, Stubbs is fighting relegation. There is one consolation. As he said: "At least a lot of people will be able to see how I defend this year."