The rise and fall of Owen Coyle
OWEN Coyle arrived as the antidote to Wanderers’ ills, the man who would mend broken bridges between the terraces and the football club.
Two-and-a-half years under Gary Megson had alienated many supporters and driven them from the Reebok and, while functional, those who continued turning up had little to get excited about.
And then stepped in a man steeped in White Hot tradition. One who had helped give Bruce Rioch his finest hours at Burnden Park and who had, since hanging up his boots, been working miracles on small budgets at Burnley and north of the border.
The appointment felt spot on, and for a wonderful spell the bonhomie worked. Having one of the game’s brightest young managers in our midst gave reason for us to believe the future was bright.
The smiles, the unity and the football reminiscent of those glory days in the mid-nineties was back on the agenda and after guiding the club away from the bottom three in his first few months in charge, we once again found ourselves dreaming of Europe.
Coyle’s mission statement of blooding young, exciting talent was summed up with two new arrivals.
Jack Wilshere, the precocious Arsenal midfielder, had barely featured for the Gunners but played a huge part for the Whites as they scrapped their way to an acceptable 14th position.
And Stuart Holden, a US international barely heard of on these shores until he linked up with Wanderers, proved a sensation, until a cruel injury robbed him of more than a year of his professional career.
Coyle was the golden boy, linked with jobs at Aston Villa and Liverpool in his first year at the Reebok but somewhere along the line the magic simply stopped working, or at least wore off.
The cure became the problem. The Glaswegian’s positivity and platitudes had been part of the charm when things were running smoothly but when results dipped, they became hard to fathom for many fans.
The explosive start to the 2010/11 season, where the Whites were riding high on the fringe of the Champions League positions, was the absolute zenith.
Daniel Sturridge had proved another incredible loan find in the New Year, while goals had also been milked from club record transfer Johan Elmander for the first time in his Reebok career.
But just when it appeared the club were on the verge of something special, cracks started to appear.
Holden would be the first of several key players lost to injury, Yet the first clubbing blow to Coyle’s reputation came in April 2011, when after a glorious run to the FA Cup semi-finals his team and tactics were found out by canny Tony Pulis’s Stoke City.
A 5-0 thrashing sent thousands of Wanderers fans back from Wembley in disappointment and the manager would never again be viewed the same way by the masses.
Coyle was now no longer being judged on how he had improved the previous reign, it was now about how he had handled his own.
The hangover from that day in North London was long lasting. The Whites were dealt a difficult hand by the fixture computer, coming up against most of the Premier League’s big hitters in the opening two months of the season, but their failure to snatch points where they could meant they made the worst start to a league campaign in more than a century.
Now without the class of Chung-Yong Lee, who had broken his leg in pre-season, the previously free-flowing football had dried up completely. The favoured 4-4-2 formation, which had been such a selling point as Coyle entered the club promising exciting wing play, was no longer popular and abandoned for a more solid 4-5-1.
By Christmas the Whites avoided being bottom by the skin of their teeth, beating Lancashire neighbours Blackburn Rovers in a rare moment of levity.
Victories over the Merseyside clubs offered some hope that it wouldn’t just be a relegation scrap after the New Year, and coupled with another run in the FA Cup, the signs were actually quite positive heading to White Hart Lane to take on Tottenham.
Again, North London would be the backdrop to another huge event in the club’s history.
The following days were a haze of well-wishes and prayers, and with the manager and chairman Phil Gartside in constant vigil at the London Chest Hospital, a quite miraculous recovery was made by the midfielder.
A relegation scrap seemed small beer in comparison, and yet that’s what was waiting for Coyle when he went back to Euxton.
Victory over Blackburn on an emotional day paved the way for similar success at Wolves and Aston Villa.
But points were thrown away against Sunderland, Swansea and West Brom, leaving Wanderers needing a win on the final day at Stoke City.
Another draw saw the club drop out of the big time for the first time in 11 years. And though Gartside wasted no time in backing his manager at that point, it marked the point where many fans started to demand change.
Several established first teamers were released, and by Coyle’s own estimation he went into the new Championship season with a stronger squad than he had presided over the season before.
From the moment his side were beaten 2-0 at Burnley on the opening day, it seemed the challenge of second tier football had been vastly underestimated.
Consistency remained a serious problem and when Wanderers were humbled 3-1 by Steve Bruce’s Hull City in early September, supporters had become vocal in their demand to see Coyle leave.
The man himself seemed to be speaking from a position of strength when he claimed he would have “no problem” should the Whites hierarchy look elsewhere – but his tone changed noticeably after Saturday’s defeat against Millwall, and yesterday’s talks with Davies and Gartside put an end to his misery.