1989 and all that – journalist and Wanderers fan Gary Parkinson recalls his big day out

AS I’d started watching Wanderers after the 1986 Freight Rover Trophy final against Bristol City, our 1989 date with Torquay was my Wembley debut.

I’ve been back several times since, as a fan and a journalist, but none of those visits carry the same memories of innocent happiness.

The team’s journey to Wembley was hardly a procession. In the curious three-team groups I’d been one of the 2,695 at Burnden watching Steve Thompson’s late winner put paid to Preston; despite our then-obligatory defeat at pesky old Bury, we qualified thanks to Preston’s pummelling of the Shakers.

So we played Preston again, away on the plastic, and won 1-0. It took extra time to dispose of two Fourth-Division promotions chasers: Wrexham at home thanks to Mark Winstanley’s 40-yard once-in-a-lifetimer, then Crewe away thanks to Winnie again – half the Bolton goals he ever scored came on this cup run – and new captain Phil Brown.

That set up a two-leg Northern Final with (t)rusty old Blackpool, starting at Burnden with 10,000 on.

For reasons I’ve never fully understood, tickets for the away leg went on sale 15 minutes before the end of the first game, so I duly popped out of the Paddock to leg it round and get my ticket – at which point I heard the roar greeting Julian Darby’s winner. The stewards wouldn’t let me back in the Paddock so for the first and only time I snuck into the Burnden Stand to watch the final minutes. (Sorry, Mr McBain.)

I was too young to travel to the away leg by myself, so I needed a hero. Enter my dad. He’d been there for Wembley '58 and he knew what it meant, so he fired up the old Citroen and drove me to Bloomfield – sitting in the dilapidated car park for two hours, listening to Radio Lancashire and smoking 20 Bensons while his only son watched Steve Thompson’s extra-time penalty send us safely through.

Perhaps Dad wanted to be close by, just in case: it was three days after Hillsborough.

For the final, the family budget stretched to two tickets, for father and son. I was resplendent in my home Wanderers top with the No.4 on the back: to this day, I’ve never had a number in honour of anyone except Robbie Savage. (Not that one, younger readers. Dear me, no.) At a service station we found a Wanderers flag but it didn’t have a stick, so we whittled one from a tree branch.

The Citroen chugged through London suburbs that seemed endless and drab to me then and, to be honest, still do now. Eventually we came upon the national stadium, instantly recognisable and unimaginably vast, apparently a mile from end to end.

At the gates the police confiscated our whittled stick but trouble was notably absent, perhaps helped by the opposition: Torquay had surprisingly toppled Third Division champions Wolves, whose fans may have been less chummy.

At the tunnel end, despite being stationed on a horribly shallow terrace more than half a pitch away from the nearest goal let alone the far one, we Bolton fans – festooned with inflatable Norpigs and Happy Wanderers – were confident. We were on a 21-match unbeaten run and Torquay’s goalkeeper was 41 – he had grey hair, for Pete’s sake.

So it was a shock when the Gulls went ahead from a poorly-defended corner (ever a Wanderers weakness), but a great relief four minutes later when we equalised through a spin-and-hit from Julian Darby – then still the local lad made good, rather than the hapless scapegoat he would become later in Phil Neal’s reign.

From there, Wanderers were the better team, although it took fortune to take the lead just after the hour. Jeff Chandler’s shot was going well wide until it took a sizeable deflection off John Morrison, but you wouldn’t know it from the winger’s jubilant celebration – matched on the terraces by thousands of shirtless Whites rapidly turning pink in the 90-degree heat.

Even then we might have lost it, but for David Felgate’s safe hands – “Wales’ No.1” making up for the heartbreak of missing out in 1986 with two great saves. Again, history might remember Felgate unkindly for an FA Cup defeat at Southampton, but for a while he was a key player in the renaissance under Phil Neal.

And then, the completely unexpected. At 31, Dean Crombie was a doughty centre-back approaching his anecdotage, which certainly received a boost with what happened in the 73rd minute.

From a Torquay corner, Deano karate-kicked a clearance to John Thomas and just kept running. Collecting the ball over the top from Savage, Crombie calmly clipped the ball over the emergent Kenny Allen like a 30-goal-a-year specialist. In fact, in his 126 Bolton games, he only scored three.

From there it was all over bar the shouting that greeted Bolton’s fourth. Neal’s standard late switch was to replace the guile of Chandler with the pace of Stuart Storer, a greyhound of a footballer: very fast in a straight line, tiny brain.

Phil Brown simply banged it into space behind the left-back, Storer whizzed onto it and crossed for the lumbering Trevor Morgan, somehow our top scorer with 11 that term, to bundle home before executing the least-elegant somersault ever witnessed at this sporting Valhalla.

George Courtney blew his whistle, Elton John presented the trophy and that was that. Except it wasn’t, because the story never ends. Phil Neal had Bolton on an upward trajectory – seeking promotion in between major-cup runs – which Bruce Rioch managed to complete. Several of these players moved on, but Dean Crombie and Julian Darby returned in backroom roles at this most loyalty-inspiring of clubs.

I learned to write about football and found a career in the media: it’s 30 years since the Sherpa Van Trophy final, and I’ve spent more than 20 of them working in London. Wembley’s still awkward to get to, but it’s now a vastly superior stadium designed for the 21st century rather than the 19th.

As for Dad, he still follows the Wanderers from his armchair and when I occasionally drag him along. He didn’t go back to Wembley until I managed, via my hard-won journalistic contacts, to get him a ticket for another Wanderers game there, 22 years later.

On that occasion, we lost, and I shall say no more about it. But thanks, Dad, for cementing my love of this brilliant, rubbish, marvellous, maddening, ever-changing, never-changing bunch of heroes and villains we call the Wanderers. Here’s to the next trip. Fancy the play-off final next year?

For more, visit garyparkinsonmedia.com