PHIl Neal’s abiding memory of Wanderers’ glorious triumph over Torquay United at Wembley was not of 25,000 joyful fans or Champagne corks cracking in the dressing rooms – it was of the late, great Nat Lofthouse savouring one more cup triumph.
In a rare interview, the former Burnden Park boss recalled his delight at having restored some of the feelgood factor to a club that had hit rock bottom under his tutelage just two years earlier.
Wanderers had been relegated to the bottom tier in Neal’s first full season in charge for the first time in their history.
But the much-decorated former Liverpool and England defender claims the lows the Whites had suffered in the dark days made victory In the sunshine 25 years ago all the more sweet.
“It was a day that everyone, top to bottom at the football club, enjoyed,” he told The Bolton News.
“It was proof that we were finally getting things right and pushing ahead.
“I never saw it as a success for myself at the time – although looking back now I regard it just as fondly as anything I did with Liverpool. It was the people who had been there with me, the backroom, who had been so strong when things really were bad.
“And I can still see Lofty (Lofthouse) smiling at the fact we were lifting a trophy again all those years after he had been heading them in.
“To see the club operating on that stage, at that level, and still feel that burn of excitement he had as a player back in 1958.
“That was what winning the cup was about that day: making people happy again.”
Much-maligned in his six years at Bolton, many now look back on Neal’s long reign more favourably, as it laid the groundwork for Bruce Rioch’s more celebrated White Hot era.
Neal’s other two trips to Wembley with Bolton ended in disappointment – three years earlier in the Freight Rover Trophy against Bristol City and two years later with defeat against Tranmere Rovers in the play-offs.
But the Wembley win against Torquay had also been tinged with emotion for the former Anfield man, who six weeks earlier had been on the touchline as he heard news of the tragedy unfolding at Hillsborough.
“I remember vividly where I was, managing Bolton at Fulham, and the news hit me like a gunshot,” he said.
“I’d already been through Heysel as a player and it brought back a lot of emotions which probably played on my mind because such a big part of my life had been at Liverpool.
“We got through it – and again I have to thank people around me, my staff, and people like Sammy Lee who played their part.”
Neal paid special tribute to the man who brought his side back into the game that day, Julian Darby.
The home-grown player had experienced his fair share of stick but had been one of the first names on his teamsheet at Wembley.
“The crowd would get at Julian like you wouldn’t believe,” he said.
“But the great thing about him was that you could say to him ‘I need you to play right-back, then the next week centre-half, or in midfield, and he never batted an eyelid. That was his quality. I don’t think the fans really realised just how important he had become to the team because he wasn’t one of these glamorous midfield types.
“It was that kind of day. Even Dean Crombie, who didn’t get many goals, it was his final. He will never forget that.”
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