“I THINK there was a time when I knew every player in every team – plus the reserve teams – in the whole Football League.”

Bruce Rioch reckoned he and right hand man Colin Todd clocked up around 100,000 miles a year on scouting missions at the peak of his managerial spell at Bolton Wanderers, with chief scout Ian McNeil adding at least the same again at home and abroad.

The aim? To stumble on a random trialists in a reserve game, to strike up conversations in the stands that could lead to a signing, to check out first-hand whether a target man really was as burly as he was being made out to be.

Twenty-eight years after he was appointed as the successor to Phil Neal, Rioch has revealed some of the secrets behind his glory days at Burnden Park – and why he would advise any young manager not to rely too heavily on technology.

“I think there is a lot to be said for seeing someone with your own two eyes,” he said. “I always say to younger managers ‘if you go and see what you want, it was worth the trip. If you don’t you’ll never really know.’ “People are scouting with technology now and I really think that can only take you so far.

“I want to know about the person as well as the player and there are some things you will never find out until you are out there on the road.

“You need to speak to people about players to get a better picture of a character, trust the right judgements.”

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Rioch uses the signing of Finnish striker Mixu Paatelainen from Aberdeen in 1994 as a good example of how a recommendation could change recruitment plans.

“We were up in Scotland to look at (Andy) McClaren from Dundee United and Mixu was playing against him, having a pretty good game,” he recalled. “So at half time I sat having a chat with Jim McClean, who had been manager there for many years.

“I asked him: ‘So what do you think about Mixu?’ And he said: ‘If I had £300,000 I would buy him back tomorrow.’ And up there, that’s like getting a seal of approval from Fergie.

“He looked like a powerful striker who might do well for us but me and Toddy wanted to know just how big he was. So we drove up to Airdrie and watched him again.

“This time we went down to the tunnel, hoping to see him up close. A steward stopped us, so we had to wait until he came out for a warm-up.

“A few minutes later he came jogging past us, a big strapping lad who could obviously handle himself. I thought ‘he’ll do for me’. And we signed him.”

A similar suggestion from closer to home led to the signing of David Lee from Southampton a few years earlier.

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Rioch called on John McGinlay to ask about his former Bury team-mate and whether he could offer the pace and dynamism his midfield needed at the time.

“I felt we lacked a little bit in that area so I asked John about Didsy, and he said: ‘The little fella is so quick and his fitness levels are so high, you’d never believe it.

“He’d said that sometimes his final ball wasn’t quite there but that he put the ball in the box that often that it didn’t really matter.

“So I went down to see him at the training ground, I think Southampton were playing against QPR’s reserves. I came back and talked to Ian Branfoot and he said they wanted £250,000 but we just didn’t have it.

“Thankfully, we were able to talk them into a loan. He came in and did so well that the general income of the club was better. The board had watched him week-in, week-out, and seen how popular he had become so they were happier to spend the money.

“And that was one of the signings that really ignited the season for us.”

Impromptu scouting trips became a common feature for Rioch and Todd, who both had rented accommodation in Bolton and who would much rather pass the night away sat in the stands than in front of the television.

The Bolton News: HISTORY: Alan Thompson, left, celebrates scoring Bolton’s first goal

“Generally speaking, Toddy’s home was up in the North East, so he would keep an eye up there. It was his connections at Newcastle that alerted us to Alan Thompson, in fact.

“I was down in Harpenden, so I would be looking at the south – but when we were together, I can remember so many nights going out to games and watching players.

“We used to call ourselves the Bolton people watchers. You’d park up outside a ground and watch who was going in, who you’d need to talk to.

“I reckon we’d get through 100,000 miles a year, but it was worth every second of the journey, they were great times.”

One such off-the-cuff trip during an international break led to perhaps Rioch’s most celebrated signing.

“We were sat in the office at about 1.30pm and looking at the PA sheet,” he said. “There was only one match on – Norwich City reserves. I looked at Toddy, he looked at me. And off we went.

“We both went home for the weekend but on the Monday morning I drove back through London to watch Wimbledon and Crystal Palace’s reserves.

“Flicking through the programme I saw Gudni Bergsson’s name and wondered what he was doing there?

“I phoned Terry Venables who told me he was studying to be a lawyer back in Iceland and just keeping up his fitness.

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“We all know how that turned out – but if I hadn’t been at that game, we’d never have known he was available.” Rioch had high demands on players’ fitness levels and admits he would often get Todd to test out a potential signing even as he sat discussing a contract.

“On quite a few occasions I can remember sitting and discussing a contract and giving the signal to Toddy to take him outside for a look around the ground,” he said.

“At the time I wanted my players to be able to do 3,000 metres in 12 minutes, which was the level the great Brazil team used to insist upon.

“So Toddy would put him through his paces outside. I’m not sure the agents ever knew it but when they came back in he’d give me a thumbs up or a thumbs down.”

Improving players' conditioning was always important to Rioch, who had carried those values through from his own playing career at Aston Villa.

And one case in particular stands out for the former Bolton boss.

“One thing I take great pride in was being able to get Tony Kelly playing his best football," he said.

“You only had to take a look at some of the FA Cup games to see what he was capable of doing – but we had to be looking over his shoulder and keeping his mind on the game. We got him as fit as he had ever been.

“I remember going to Highbury to play Arsenal and Terry Venables coming over to me and saying that is the best half of football he’d ever seen from a visiting team. Tony had put on a masterclass.”

Under Rioch’s watch, Wanderers would secure two promotions in three years, appear in the Coca Cola Cup final against Liverpool and beat the likes of Liverpool, Everton and Arsenal in the FA Cup.

He left 25 years ago to manage Arsenal with the highest win per centage (48.26) of any full-time Bolton boss, a philosophy he is proud to say ran right throughout the club.

“Cloughie used to call his players back every summer and no matter what they done in the previous season, he’d say it was a fresh start – but that he wanted to win the league, the cups, and whatever European competition they were in. Then he’d turn to the reserves and say he wanted exactly the same.

“Winning is a habit and it has to be at every level of a club. We had Steve Carroll’s Central League team finish fourth, third and first in my three seasons. It didn’t matter what level we were playing, we wanted results.

“You have to strive to be the best in every department you can. We’d meet with stewards and people who would work in the offices and talk about the importance of looking after people, being the best they could be.”

Another major factor in Bolton's success at the time was the unique personality mix between Rioch and his assistant, Colin Todd.

Team-mates in their playing days at Derby, they initially linked up at Middlesbrough.

"I remember Toddy had been working with Vaux Brewery and living near Hartlepool," he said. "I don't think he thanked me for going to Boro because within a few weeks we were in liquidation.

"Things were that bad at the time I had to lend him my car. And he managed to write it off!

"We're different people but we had the same idea of what made a good player. He certainly understood what I was looking for in a team and how I wanted it to play.

"It really is vital that your coaching staff know your philosophy and Toddy was such an important part of that for us, especially if I was away."

Rioch also revealed how players were obliged to bring in cakes on their birthday – and how on one occasion, Andy Walker bit off a little more than he could chew.

“We’d always make sure that whoever had a birthday would leave the cakes in the dressing room for after training but on one occasion someone had taken a slice out of the cake and put a bar of soap in there instead,” he recalled.

“Andy got the unlucky slice and spat it out. Then he threw his cake across the room. All of a sudden it was a food fight.

“I walked into the room and the walls were splattered with cream and jam. I sat down next to Alan Stubbs, looked him in the eye, and said: ‘Is everything alright?’ “I think people were expecting me to go mad – but when I looked at Stubbsy, he had a great big dollop of cream hanging off his ear, so I couldn’t keep a straight face.

“There was so much fun in that dressing room but when the time came to be focussed, they certainly were.”

Looking after the players also extended beyond the dressing room, and Rioch - who was famed for prefering his players to be married, where possible - made sure family life was as happy as it could be.

"We took care of the players but also their families too," he said. "I had that on my mind throughout my time at Bolton because people were coming from all over the UK and abroad, and I wanted to make sure that they didn't feel isolated at all.

"We had a players lounge, a creche, and we'd insist that the wives went out for dinner with each other regularly.

"You'd tell the lads 'right, you need to put this date in your diary because the wives are going out.'

"I can still see the horror on Phil Brown's face now when he answered back 'But gaffer, that means we have to babysit!'"