NOTHING was decided but Kevin Nolan’s screaming free-kick 16 minutes from time secured three priceless points that put Wanderers in pole position to survive their first season in the Premier League.

After getting off to a flying start with three wins, Sam Allardyce’s Whites had slipped into the relegation dogfight and, despite winning at Charlton the previous week, still needed a win to keep themselves clear of the bottom three.

But Villa proved a tough nut to crack and, after Nolan’s deflected shot had put Wanderers in front after eight minutes, George Boateng’s shot deflected in off Paul Warhurst and Ian Taylor added a second to put Graham Taylor’s side in front.

Enter Fredi Bobic – the German striker Allardyce had drafted in on loan. He pounced five minutes before half-time, scoring his first goal in Bolton colours at close range from Youri Djorkaeff’s free-kick and, suddenly, it was game on.

Peter Crouch caused problems aplenty for the Wanderers’ defence but the Reebok had heroes of its own in ex-Villa keeper Kevin Poole, the hard-working Dean Holdsworth, stand-in captain Simon Charlton, Mike Whitlow who was sent on in a tactical substitution after just half an hour and the boy Nolan – just 19 years old but playing with the maturity of a veteran.

Nolan would not have taken the free kick had Djorkaeff still been on the pitch, but with the Frenchman out of the picture, he assumed the responsibility and hammered in a 30-yarder that beat Peter Schmeichel all ends up.

Hailing the Reebok team spirit, Allardyce took a swipe at the critics who’d had Wanderers marked down for the drop from day one. “We’ve had a bad time lately and a little bit of naughty press has come out, saying that they were fragmented,” he said.

“The knockers have been at us again and it’s lifted us to show them that they are all wrong.”

Wanderers: Poole; N’Gotty, Warhurst, Konstantinidis, Charlton, Nolan, Frandsen (Whitlow 31), Bobic, Gardner, Djorkaeff (Ricketts 66), Holdsworth. Not used: Cassar, Wallace, Barness.

Aston Villa: Schmeichel; Delaney (Samuel 71), Mellberg, Staunton, Barry, Hadji, Boateng, Taylor, Hitzlsperger, Crouch, Vassell (Angel 71). Not used: Enckelman, Balaban, Kachloul.

Attendance: 24,600.

Referee: Rob Styles (Hampshire).