NEVER before or since has a Bolton Wanderers crowd stood in such total respect as the day Fernando Hierro’s glittering career drew to a close under their gaze.

The Spaniard spent just 10 months in England and played regularly for less than half that time, yet he walked off the pitch against Everton in May 2005 to something approximating hero worship from those in the stands, and those on the pitch.

Back in Madrid, you could have understood the mass reverence. Hierro was Real’s most celebrated defensive player who had lifted five La Liga titles and three Champions League trophies over 15 glittering years at the Bernabeu.

He was still club captain when he was eased out by president Florentino Perez – the man responsible for ushering in the Galáctico era – and had famously refused to lead his team out on a second lap of honour after the fifth of their championship wins in protest at the growing commercialisation of the club.

The Bolton News:

Throughout his time at Bolton, and whenever Real’s flamboyant transfer policy was raised, the tone of Hierro’s response in Spanish rendered the translator redundant.

“There are good players, very good players and great players,” he told The Irish Independent in 2005. “I said at the time that using the word ‘galáctico’ was going to do more harm than good at Madrid over the long term. Football is something more natural, more real. Using terms like that is not right.”

Hierro had left Madrid on a sour note and it would have been a crying shame for his distinguished career to have ended in the footballing backwaters of the Middle East.

Bolton had been interested in Hierro when he left Real. An offer from Al Rayyan in Qatar was unquestionably more lucrative but like Pep Guardiola, who had accepted an offer from Al-Alhi in Saudi Arabia at the same time, the desire to finish on a high was hard to resist and his time there proved brief.

Step forward Sam Allardyce. He had already formed a band of Galácticos by convincing Youri Djorkaeff, Jay-Jay Okocha, Bruno N’Gotty, and Hierro’s former Real team-mate Ivan Campo to Lancashire – but there was a real twinkle in Big Sam’s eye when he sat in front of a packed out press room at the Reebok to announce he had finally got his man.

The Bolton News:

"Fernando Hierro is, without doubt, one of the biggest names in Spanish football,” Sam Allardyce eulogised as he unveiled his new signing to a packed-out press room at the Reebok. “I firmly believe he can become a star in the English game."

Hierro made an instant impression on the training ground.

“He had an aura about him right away,” said Nicky Hunt, the local lad fulfilling every boy’s dream by becoming a first team regular in that star-studded side. “I think it helped that he had Ivan Campo there and I think Julio Cesar was still knocking around so there were a few Spanish speakers.

“I just remember him being really approachable. I was young and you’re looking at this guy who has won everything there is to win. But he’s dead humble and he’s stopping to give you advice.”

It wasn’t just the youngsters who were impressed. Kevin Davies believes the coaching team were taking notes when Hierro talked.

“There were times when he would stop sessions and Fernando would make points to the team about the defence,” he said. “Sam tapped into that. He knew he had players on there who had won domestic titles – Stelios being another one – and he’d have conversations with them, make notes.

“I just remember him being an absolute class act. When he spoke, you listened, but he was quite an unassuming bloke. He spoke quite softly, had such a kind face, and he’d think nothing about spending 10-15 minutes chatting to one of the younger players and passing on advice.

“I know he’s gone into coaching, had some time with Spain, but back then you could see that was the way he was going to go.”

Though Hierro was a big behind the walls of Euxton, out in the hustle and bustle of the Premier League it proved slower going. His first start did not come until November and as Allardyce struggled to get both him and Campo into the same team, reports started to circulate that Wanderers were looking to offload.

The Bolton News:

“I remember him struggling at Norwich,” Hunt recalled. “I think he was playing at centre-back but it hadn’t quite worked for him and the gaffer discussed that he needed to play him further forward.

“In the end he got back into the team ahead of Ivan (Campo), which must have been difficult because he’d played virtually every game. But in the second half of the season they found the perfect place.”

The Hierro role had been created. And though that meant a temporary step back for fans’ favourite Campo, the run of games in the last third of the season proved an absolute masterclass.

“The thing is, he could hit passes five yards or 50 yards, and it was pin-point,” Davies said. “He didn’t run across the pitch, he seemed to glide, and always had space. He was playing different game to the rest of us.

“It might have taken a little bit of time for him to get used to the pace of the game after Spain but once he was up to speed, he had brilliant technique and then the ability to execute.”

Hunt believes even at 37 it was a mark of Hierro’s quality that he was able to adapt his game and find the sort of range of passing that Wanderers had been missing.

“That’s the thing with the superstars that the gaffer brought in, they didn’t have egos, they were still listening and learning,” he said. “That’s what made them great players. They didn’t come in thinking they knew it all, they worked so hard, they were dedicated to what they were doing.

“When I talk to Bolton fans they ask what it was like training with Fernando or Jay-Jay Okocha and whether they’d be giving it all the skills. But they really didn’t.

“It was pure focus. They set such a high standards for themselves and it made you want to be that good as well.”

Kevin Nolan agrees. The midfielder had already earned his spurs as Wanderers established themselves in the Premier League but found himself watching the Spaniard in action and nodding in approval.

“Show me a player who couldn’t learn something from Fernando Hierro,” he told the Bolton News.

“He’d won pretty much everything there was to win, so for a player like me who was still fairly young at that point in time it was amazing having him to speak to, even just to watch him in training, take something from all that experience.

“It was an absolutely privilege to play alongside him.”

The Bolton News:

Wanderers lost just three of their last 17 games to secure their first-ever spot in Europe.

Allardyce had tried his level best to convince Hierro, then 37, to stay on for another season but prior to the Everton game he had announced that it would be his last.

A contingent of 40 friends and family were among those who stood and applauded when he came off the pitch for Vincent Candela, Stelios having just given 10-man Bolton a 3-2 lead.

“In his final game, I took him off so the crowd could give him an ovation,” Allardyce told The Athletic earlier this year. “He had only been with us a year, but, honestly, I’ve never known any player get an ovation like it.”

Hunt remembers the parting gift that Hierro gave him on his final day at the Reebok.

“I’d been asking him to try and get something from Madrid, and then after his final game he gave me a memento,” he said.

“It was a match-worn Ronaldo number nine shirt – the original Ronaldo – and I was just, like, ‘wow’.

“I offered to pay for it but he was having none of it. I’ve still got the shirt in storage.

“He was just a class act. There’s no other word for it.”

The final word should go to Hierro.

Writing in the book ‘From Guernica to Guardiola: How the Spanish Conquered English Football’ he discussed how much he enjoyed his spell at Bolton.

“We felt we could trouble anyone,” he said. “I could sense in the tunnel that teams hated the idea of playing us, particularly at the Reebok. Okocha provided brilliant set pieces. We saw every set piece as a chance to score. It’s not just about having big people. It’s where you run, who you block. It wasn’t rocket science. I had an amazing career with Real Madrid and Spain, but if I could have had a second career, I would spend it in England. I loved everything about it.”

The feeling, at Bolton, was mutual.