AS two founder members of the Football League, the two Wanderers – Bolton and Wolverhampton – developed a rich and sometimes fierce history of rivalry.

But throw John McGinlay into that mix and it was like tossing a match into a powder keg.

Explosive just doesn’t go close to describing the atmosphere when the legendary Super John – the idol of Wanderers fans – set about winding up the Molineux faithful.

But it was never quite so feisty as in January 1997 when Colin Todd’s Wanderers were blazing a trail at the top of Division One and Mark McGhee’s Wolves were desperately trying to stay in the promotion hunt.

It might have been unseemly at the time but “The Battle of Burnden Park”, as it became known, will stand forever as a treasured memory for the Bolton fans who witnessed it.

A 22-man brawl – no exaggeration – set the scene for a victory that left no-one under any illusions. Bolton were not just on their way back to the Premier League, they were going up as champions.

There was still a lot of football to be played that season but with Wanderers now nine points clear of the field and with 17 games to play, McGhee conceded the title on behalf of the chasing pack when he said: “I think they won the league with this victory.

“They are the best side in the division by a long way. We were well beaten but we are one of half a dozen clubs up there who are not as good as them.

“Our consolation is that there is only one team in this division as good as that and the rest are as good as ourselves.”

It was not, it must be acknowledged, a dirty game. Hotly contested, yes, but there were only three bookings.

Even so, there was an under-current of hostility which had its roots in recent history and which was fuelled when McGinlay – Public Enemy No 1 in the eyes of the Wolves fans not least because he got away with flooring David Kelly in the memorable play-off semi-final of 1995 – went out 10 minutes before kick off to give the visitors a wave.

It was a cute trick, but there was nothing cute about the brawl that was later described by a bemused referee David Allison who recalled: “At two minutes past three I gave a goal kick and all hell broke loose.”

Once the dust had settled Todd’s men set about imposing their superiority and, no disrespect to the Old Golds, it was no contest.

McGinlay (who else?) delivered the first decisive blow after 21 minutes, heading home Bryan Small’s cross to make it 20 for the season.

Wanderers assumed control in the first half and turned the screw in the second with the defence, superbly marshalled by the rock-solid Gerry Taggart, refusing to give Wolves a sniff of a chance while McGinlay’s sidekick Nathan Blake stepped up a gear.

It proved an unpleasant afternoon all round for the 3,000 visiting fans who were furious at half-time when Wanderers mascot Lofty the Lion performed his usual two-minute routine right under their noses – and was pelted by missiles.

The pride of Bolton ended up being reported to the Football Association for incitement but Burnden’s top brass told him to carry on entertaining.

Back on the pitch, the Wolves players – outmuscled and outplayed in all areas – contributed to their own downfall when when defender Keith Curle volleyed Taggart’s deep cross into his own net with no white shirt anywhere near him.

And four minutes later, it was all over when Blake netted his 18th of the season.

Todd refused to count his chickens but knew his players had achieved another significant victory in their quest for the title.

“We showed our steel and when people say we can’t keep a clean sheet, we have proved them wrong.

“The players did their talking on the pitch to make Wolves look indifferent.

“Taggart was colossal but if I’m looking to pick out players I could go right through the team.”

Then, revealing McGinlay had been doubtful with a calf injury and had needed painkilling injections before the game and at half time, Todd spelled out just how important the talismanic Scot was to the cause.

“John epitomises the spirit of the football club,” the manager said. “I told him I knew he was not quite fit but I badly needed him out there . . . that’s how important he is to the club.

“Psychologically it was important to get him out there because he has always been a thorn in their side.”