Phil Neal: I hope history judges me kindly on my time at Bolton Wanderers
HE might have arrived at Burnden Park as the most decorated English player in history but life at Wanderers was never an easy ride for Phil Neal.
Boasting four European Cups, eight League Championships, four League Cups and a UEFA Cup in his 11 years at Liverpool, the England international was plunged into a very different world when he took up the challenge of a player-manager role in December 1985, with the club then in the old Third Division.
After suffering the agony of defeat at Wembley to Bristol City in the Freight Rover Trophy final, he was then tagged with the ignominious mantle of being the only manager to take Wanderers down into the bottom tier of English football.
History has shown, however, that out of the wreckage, a new era was formed.
While never White Hot, Neal’s steady rebuilding at least got things warmed up as young starlets such as Jason McAteer and Alan Stubbs were drafted into the team and players like Tony Kelly, Phil Brown and Andy Walker had started to come to the fore.
Speaking to The Bolton News about his days at Burnden, the former manager hopes his time at the club will be viewed in a positive light.
“I got a rough ride at the time,” he said. “I was really learning my trade at Bolton, it was never going to be perfect but I hope people look back now and think ‘you know, he didn’t do too badly.’ “Going down into the fourth division was a huge blow but I’ll always be proud of the way we got started again, kicked on, and became a better team because of that disappointment.
“I don’t know why I had such a hard time. Sometimes people make their decisions and don’t let them go.
“It happened again when I was involved in the England set-up with all the ‘yes man’ stuff – it was difficult because I felt they had made their mind up about me. I wasn’t that person and it stuck with me for the rest of my career.
“You look at Sam Allardyce at West Ham now, he is getting hammered by the press over how he’s playing and that – it’s incredible. Just let the man manage.
“But I stand by my record of spotting players, improving and making money for the clubs I worked with.
“I did that at Bolton and I think if you asked the people involved, they were quite pleased with the results.”
Only Bill Ridding and Sam Allardyce served Wanderers longer than Neal, who lasted six years, four months and 20 days before being sacked on May 8, 1992.
Three weeks later, Bruce Rioch would arrive at the club and kick-off the White Hot era – but he would do so with a lot of the players that Neal had introduced into the squad.
McAteer was plucked from non league Marine but Neal reckons the Bolton board at the time were nonplussed by the youngster, who would go on to represent the Republic of Ireland and be sold to Liverpool for £4.5million.
“They didn’t really have a lot to say about him when I brought Jason in, but I was sure he had something,” he said.
“He had that running power that you see in someone like Jordan Henderson at Liverpool now. People moan about him being overpriced but he is so vital to how they play.”
Stubbs was another Merseysider, albeit one brought into the ranks a lot earlier. Neal handed him his professional debut in 1990, and six years later the defender was sold on to Celtic for £4million.
After relegation to the bottom division, Neal admits the decision to bring on board experienced coach Mick Brown proved a pivotal one – allowing him to concentrate on managerial duties.
“Even Sir Alex Ferguson couldn’t have done it without his backroom staff,” he said. “We had a good backroom team at Bolton.
“The scout who spotted Stubbsy and McAteer, Harry Parkinson, was a terrific fella and when we won the Sherpa Van Trophy I told him to get up the front of the bus and accept some of that applause because that had been a real team effort.
“We had a great staff at that time from my youth coach Steve Carroll to the people behind the scenes like Alf Davies, or Margaret Sandiford in the office.
“It made you appreciate the good days more when they came around, even thought there were tough times too.”
Neal never quite managed to lift the club out of the Third Division, losing in the play-offs to Notts County and then at the final hurdle to Tranmere Rovers a year later.
A mid-table finish, albeit accompanied by a good FA Cup run, in 1991/92 was enough to convince the board at Wanderers that change was needed and just 21 days after Neal’s departure, Rioch walked through the door as his replacement.
“I am sorry about the way it ended,” Neal said, ruefully. “It was a disappointment I didn’t get over easily at the time. But they let me manage, and that was something.
“I can honestly say I enjoyed my time at Bolton looking back now.”
Neal has maintained his links with Liverpool and continues to be a regular on the after dinner circuit.
Asked regularly to “show us your medals” – the 63-year-old now has a ready quip for such an occasion.
“I always make people laugh when I say I’ve played in five European finals because that’s more than Lionel Messi – I wonder if that makes me a better player?”