HIS stay was a brief one – spanning just 16 appearances – but Fredi Bobic will forever be remembered for the hat-trick he scored in a match that gave Wanderers a firm foothold in the Premier League.
We can only speculate as to what would have happened over the ensuing years had Sam Allardyce’s Whites failed to survive that first season back in the top flight – as had happened on the two previous occasions they had joined the Premier League elite.
But the victory over Ipswich at the Reebok in the spring of 2002 was undoubtedly a landmark result.
Certainly those who celebrated the 4-1 victory, and hailed Bobic’s performance, were mindful of its significance.
The league table spoke for itself. Wanderers, who had been fighting a relegation battle all season after losing the impetus of a sensational start, were suddenly seventh bottom on the strength of a third win in four games, six points clear of Ipswich who ended the day in the bottom three alongside Derby County and already-doomed Leicester City.
And although there were still four games to play and Allardyce himself was urging caution, the sense of relief around the Reebok that particular Saturday evening was tangible.
In fact, although insisting the battle was still not over, the Wanderers boss was starting to make plans for a second season of Premier League football – a luxury his predecessor Colin Todd was denied in 1996 and 1998.
Bobic, the out-of-fashion German international striker on loan from Borussia Dortmund, was already high on Wanderers’ wish list and there was now a much stronger possibility that the mercurial Youri Djorkaeff – a World Cup and European Championship winner with France but also off the national scene – would extend his stay.
Together Bobic and Djorkaeff had systematically destroyed George Burley’s Ipswich in a breathtaking first-half performance that ended with Wanderers 4-0 up. That and a solid defensive performance rendered the second period purely academic, to the point where Jamie Clapham’s late consolation was greeted with just ironic cheers from the travelling Ipswich fans.
The critics who were all-too-quick to write off Wanderers’ prospects of becoming a Premier League force, were left red-faced – much to the satisfaction of Allardyce, his players and their supporters.
And none more so than Rodney Marsh, leader of the pundit pack who had been so dismissive of Little Old Bolton and their methods and who just happened to be giving his assessment of the day’s Premier League action on Sky TV as Big Sam walked into the interview room.
With perfect timing, the Bolton boss looked up at the TV, saw Marsh in full flow and muttered: “He does talk some s***!”
It was as bone-jarring a put-down as one of his infamous tackles.
And it could have been aimed at any one of the countless critics who had labelled Wanderers as “no-hopers” and “cannon fodder” for the Premier League’s big guns.
To them, the flying start was a flash in the pan and that normal service would be resumed with Bolton going straight back down. They had criticised Allardyce’s recruitment methods, claiming he was wasting his money on “mercenary foreigners”.
So it was doubly satisfying that two of Wanderers’ so-called “international has-beens” should play such a central role in the match that proved one of the most significant in the club’s history.
This was billed as a relegation decider and there had been tension in the build-up, but the Bolton fans were celebrating after just two minutes when Bobic intercepted a Simon Charlton shot, turned and beat Ipswich keeper Andy Marshall with a clinical strike.
And the Tractor Boys had no answer to the quality and thrust of the build-up play that brought the second on the half hour, Djorkaeff delivering the telling pass for the industrious Rod Wallace, whose cross was powered home by Bobic’s diving header.
Ipswich looked a haunted side five minutes later when Wallace and Bobic combined to tee up Djorkaeff after Marshall had fluffed a clearance and three minutes after that it was all over when Bobic produced a textbook glancing header from Ricardo Gardner’s corner to become the first Bolton player to score a Premier League hat-trick.
The performance, the result, and indeed the season as a whole was a vindication of Wanderers’ strategy. And how ironic that it was Ipswich on the receiving end, two years after they had won top-flight promotion at the Whites’ expense following the controversial events of the play-off semi-final second leg at Portman Road.
That, however, was merely a sub-plot to the main theme.
Wanderers had effectively secured a second season of top-flight football and, although Allardyce insisted the champagne should stay on ice he could not resist a dig at his detractors.
“It now lays all doubts that the people outside the club had about bringing in the players we brought in and the quality of those players, because they have helped enormously,” he said.
“The whole team has played a major part, of course, but these two – particulary Youri and now Fredi – have made a major impact on our season.”