The year of Bolton Wanderers beckons

Guy Hodgson expects entertainment in tomorrow's Coca-Cola Cup semi-final
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The flat vowels that litter the Greater Manchester accent had no trace of the Orient in them, but the words did. "It's the Chinese Year of the Pig," the Bolton Wanderers supporter outside Burnden Park this week said. "Got to be good for the Trotters, hasn't it?"

It is an opinion swirling round this pocket of Greater Manchester with an urgency which increases with every success. Top of the First Division and in the semi-finals of the Coca-Cola Cup, the current Trotters are encouraging local comparison with the FA Cup-winning Bolton teams of the Twenties and Fifties. The problem is there is no shortage of optimisim in Swindon either.

The two teams meet in the first leg of the semi-final tomorrow with the supporters of both scenting improving fortunes. Bolton, after years in decline, are currently the best team in the First Division but meet Swindon Town at the County Ground just as Wiltshire believes a descent has been turned around. They, too, can look to the past and their surprise 1969 League Cup triumph.

The Nineties have been a salutary decade so far for Swindon, who began it with aspirations of grandeur and have suffered disappointments on a regular basis since. Denied promotion to the top division because of financial irregularities in 1990, they finally made it to the Premiership last season, only to find themselves hopelessly out of their depth. Even this term has brought its problems and a position near the foot of the table brought an end to the likeable John Gorman's tenure as manager.

Steve McMahon's appointment in his place has halted the slide, and they go into tomorrow's match with two wins in succession in the League. That may not sound much, but after a 14-match sequence in which they failed to get a win in the First Division earlier in the season, straws need to be clung to.

"I feel we've turned the corner," McMahon said. "The Cup run has helped because it's given the players proof that they are better than their League position suggested." McMahon arrived at the County Ground announcing they would no longer be "nicey, nicey". He added: "Swindon play some good football but they have developed a reputation for being a soft touch. I'm looking for a team that fights."

Steel has been added to silk, but the principal reason why Swindon have prospered in the Coca-Cola Cup is their Norwegian international Jan-Age Fjortoft, whose 23 goals this season have included eight in the Coca-Cola. He is quick and strong and already has attracted more than passing interest from a number of Premiership clubs ready to quadruple the £500,000 Swindon paid Rapid Vienna for his services.

"Everyone assumes Bolton will get to the final," said Mike Summerbee, the former Swindon player whose Mancunian links (and his son's time with the Wiltshire team) have kept him in touch with both clubs. "I'm not so sure. Bolton are one of the best passing teams in English football but Swindon knock it about a bit, too. I've got a gut feeling that Steve McMahon will end his first season as a manager with a triumph."

Bolton would beg to differ, even though they insist that a Coca-Cola Cup in the trophy cabinet would be an empty triumph if they fail to gain promotion. "Our priority is the League," Bruce Rioch, their manager, said. "Success in cup competitions is all very nice - it excites the supporters and gets the town going - but we want to be in the Premiership."

These are not idle words. Rioch fears his squad would not survive failure in the League, Jason McAteer and Alan Stubbs being the logical targets for Premiership clubs. He even switched Tuesday's First Division fixture with Notts County to avoid congestion later in the season, even though it was played five days before the semi-final, and was rewarded with a 1-1 draw, his goalkeeper Jim Branagan being sent off, and some breathing space when it will matter in March and April.

That maintained an unbeaten run in the League in 1995 which has also included two crushing 5-1 defeats for Charlton and Wolves. "They're the best team in the division," Charlton's Alan Curbishley said. "They pass so well and have a good understanding. They also have a strong playing line-up with a number of internationals in it."

It is Bolton's passing that arrests the eye. All their players seem at ease in possession and the eagerness to keep running allows the passer a choice. Even at the heart of the defence Stubbs and Simon Coleman attend to construction as well as destruction.

So far three Premiership teams have been bypassed in the Coca-Cola Cup - Ipswich, West Ham and Norwich - which has added to Bolton's other notable conquests since Rioch was appointed in May 1992. Even Arsenal, whose powers of containment are legendary, could not cope last year with supressing both John McGinlay up front and the runs from the wings and midfield, so it is unlikely that Swindon, without the cup-tied McMahon, will be able to.

Their best hope was the absence of McGinlay (15 goals in 23 full appearances) in Bolton's last two matches, but he played for the reserves on Wednesday and will pobably make an appearance at the County Ground.

Over two legs the likelihood is Bolton will get to Wembley. No one has yet made a convincing case for a Year of the Robin.