THE manner in which Wanderers’ “second string” comprehensively beat Watford to stroll into the fourth round of the FA Cup suggested everything in the garden was rosy at the Reebok Stadium.
But there was never a dull moment in those heady days when Sam Allardyce’s Whites had established themselves as a force in the Premier League and were still flying the flag in the UEFA Cup. And the Vicarage Road tie was played against a backdrop of uncertainty, on and off the pitch.
On the day, Wanderers were a class apart from Watford, who were considered one of the better Championship sides.
Jared Borgetti led the way, scoring his fifth goal since arriving in a £1million deal the previous summer after just 11 minutes.
But the striker, Mexico’s all-time leading scorer – had still to start a Premier League game – and he let it be known in no uncertain terms that he was far from happy with the situation.
In fact, he emerged from the away dressing room to confirm that he had asked for showdown talks with Allardyce over his future.
“I’m just waiting for Sam Allardyce to give me a chance to start games in the Premiership,” Borgetti said.
“I want to stay in Bolton but this year is the World Cup and I need to be playing.
“Not playing is no good for me. Ten games is nothing, it’s not good for me, it’s not good for the national team and it’s not good for the people of Mexico.
“It would be better if I could stay in Bolton and play, but that might have to change if the gaffer says I will not be playing in the Premiership.
“I need to speak to him and I ask him why I don’t. I just need to know.”
Former real Madrid star Ivan Campo had also expressed concerns over his situation, and was rumoured to be looking for a return to Spain. But as far as Allardyce was concerned, neither of his so-called “wantaway” stars was going anywhere – unless he received substantial offers.
Big Sam had a lot on his plate at the time.
Furious after hearing his team described as “ugly” by commentator Alan Green – comments that brought a wave of protests from Wanderers’ fans – the Bolton boss announced he would not be speaking to BBC Radio Five Live until he received an apology (which Green insisted he would not get!).
And Allardyce reckoned he would receive 100 per cent backing for his boycott from his chairman, Phil Gartside.
But Gartside had much more pressing issues to deal with – fevered speculation that Newcastle were trying to lure his manager to Tyneside.
Graeme Souness’s days at St James’ Park were numbered and Allardyce was reckoned to be top of their wanted list – 16 months after the man himself had rejected their approach.
This time the Bolton chairman decided to take matters into his own hands, issuing a hands-off message to Newcastle and any other club with designs on Allardyce.
“I’ve already decided that if Freddy Shepherd (Newcastle chairman) wanted to talk to Sam about the Newcastle job, he would be denied permission,” the Reebok chief said.
“I went down that road last time and allowed them to talks, but nothing came of it.
“Now the time isn’t right and Sam is too important to the club.
“The only way I would be prepared to consider allowing Sam to leave the club – and he had three years left on his contract – is if the England job came up.”
With all that going on – and with a crop of injuries that decimated the squad – it was amazing Wanderers were able to brush Watford aside so comfortably Allardyce reckoned he only had 11 fit senior players at his disposal, but still managed to turn out a team that boasted nine full internationals – five of whom had captained their countries – and two under-21 starlets who were soon to step up to the senior international ranks.
Watford, although themselves weakened by suspensions, might have been encouraged. But, on reflection, they never had a prayer.
The likes of Borgetti, Hidetoshi Nakata, Khalilou Fadiga and Jay Jay Okocha – all struggling at the time to live up to Premier League expectations – answered the call to arms in a manner that overwhelmed Adrian Boothroyd’s high-flying Hornets.
“Ugly football” Wanderers didn’t commit a foul for 41 minutes because they didn’t have to. They got the ball, kept it and moved it slickly and precisely and all Watford could do was chase.
Amazingly they managed to keep the half-time deficit down to two – a couple of nice strikes by Borgetti and Stelios – but only by way of an offside strategy that caused Wanderers a certain frustration, notably when Ricardo Vaz Te had a goal mysteriously disallowed.
But the game was up and, once their spirited start to the second half had fizzled out, the Hornets were pushed onto the back foot again.
Vaz Te got his reward for another impressive performance when he beat Watford keeper Ben Foster from 25 yards 13 minutes from time for a final scoreline that had a familiar look to it – identical to a year earlier when Wanderers – again without a raft of first-teamers – showed their Premier League class at Ipswich who were top of the Championship at the time.
The Bolton fans chanted “Easy, easy” – not so much in disrespect to Watford as in acknowledgment of their own team’s overwhelming superiority.
Allardyce summed it up succinctly.
“The players made it look a lot easier than it was by producing their best,” he said.
“The 11 who started did a magnificent job, played to the top of their form against a team that is playing very well in the top reaches of the Championship.
“There was no doubt about the experience of the team I put out.
“Apart from Ricardo Vaz Te and Joey O’Brien, every one has played a huge amount of international games, whatever country they have played in, throughout Europe and the world.
“And a lot of them have actually captained their international teams – Jay Jay Okocha, Jared Borgetti, Hide Nakata, Khalilou Fadiga and Ricardo Gardner.”
Big Sam even had the luxury of showing he had a sentimental streak, sending on Academy goalkeeper Sam Ashton, as a makeshift striker, for the two added minutes.
It was a fairytale for the boy from Breightmet whose love for Bolton Wanderers is tattooed on his arm.
Whatever else he would do in football, he would definitely remember the day he came on at Vicarage Road for the rest of his life.