Wanderers' popularity rising in the local opinion polls

Guy Hodgson hears the Bolton manager, Colin Todd, explain how he has revived the club after last season's relegation
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The Independent Online
Not only Peter Thurnham has had a change of heart in Bolton. The MP's jumping of ship from the Conservatives to the Liberal Democrats has coincided with radical rethinks all over his constituency, thoughts that have elevated Colin Todd's reputation from "couldn't run a bath" to that of astute football thinker.

In August the Bolton Wanderers manager would probably have got the same popularity rating that Thurnham currently has with his former Bolton North East party workers. The team had just suffered an ignominious relegation from the Premiership and, as if finishing nine points adrift of safety had not been enough, players were deserting. First Alan Stubbs to Celtic then, on the eve of the season, Sasa Curcic.

The mood was not pleasant. Accusations of lack of ambition circulated and a bad start would have made Todd's position not so much untenable as unbearable. Instead Bolton lead the First Division, having made the best start to a season since 1934.

"I wouldn't say I was surprised," Todd said, although he has reason to be. "The thing is we've got some very good players here who were hurt by what happened last season. They have professional pride. They don't like to be regarded as failures."

It was difficult to regard last season, their first in the top division for 16 years, as anything but. One manager, Bruce Rioch, jumped, another, Roy McFarland, was pushed, Jason McAteer left and there was an on-going debate as to how long Stubbs would remain. Throw in just eight League wins and "shambles" rather than "failure" is the word that comes to mind.

The low point, as every Bolton supporter will tell you, was a thrashing at Burnden Park by the big boys from down the road, Manchester United. "That was the one that really hurt," Todd said. "Losing is bad enough but 6-0 really kicked us in the teeth. The whole town felt it.

"As a manager you have to come in with a smile on your face but it was hard the following Monday, I can tell you."

All very character-forming, of course, and in Todd's case policy-forming too. He says last year's experience has toughened him up and there was an element of steel in his decision to release Curcic. Mindful of the disruptive effect of McAteer's on-off move to Liverpool last season, he sold the Serb to Aston Villa for pounds 4m almost within hours of his request.

"I think seeds had been planted in Sasa's mind. He had been on holiday with Savo Milosevic and although I kept reading he wanted to stay I felt he wasn't really with us. He wants to play in the Premiership and he went to the club where he wanted to go to.

"As soon as he told me he was unhappy I went to the board and told them I wanted to sell him. They backed me to the hilt. I took some stick from the fans but the only thing I had to prove was that I could get a win on the Saturday. To this point I've been proved right."

Crucial in that was the signing of two Danes, Per Frandsen and Michael Johansen, for pounds 2.5m. Todd went to Scandinavia without a proper shopping list and stumbled on what has proved to be half of his midfield almost by accident. He went to one match and found nothing of interest and if someone had held his attention beyond half-time the following day he would not have gone to watch FC Copenhagen and made his discoveries.

"I was patient. I didn't rush in but watched them a lot of times and they've both done very well, Per in particular. He's 26 and the experienced one. He's been in their national side and I think he's close to getting back in again. Michael's showing promise as well. They've both scored goals and fitted in well. They've been excellent buys."

If the Danes have helped ease the pain caused by Curcic's departure, then players from closer to home have also acted as an anaesthetic. Alan Thompson, a left-winger whose Premiership season was wrecked by injury, has moved into central midfield and become a playmaker while the centre- half Gerry Taggart is living up to the nickname of "Man Mountain" he acquired at Barnsley.

But if anyone personifies the difference between last season's dark age and this year's renaissance it is Nathan Blake. Bought from Sheffield United for pounds 1.2m, he looked like a cut-price Andy Cole in his settling- in period, an expensive purchase bereft of confidence. Now he is the First Division's joint top scorer with eight League goals.

"It's difficult as a striker coming into a struggling side," Todd said. "He had this and that said about him but I always had faith. You don't lose the ability to score goals, you don't lose talent. You might lose confidence but the ability is still there. He has shown our supporters he's a good player."

A few Bolton players have been revising opinions, although you would think last season would be enough to deter anyone at Burnden Park from seeking promotion. "The whole thing was frustrating, disappointing," Todd conceded while looking to the lessons learned.

"I think we were a bit naive. We played attractive football but were too open. When it came to the crunch we were too easy to beat. If we do get back, it will stand us in good stead. We'll be disciplined."