THE disappointment of Watford in 1999, the resentment of Ipswich in 2000, it all drifted away on a perfect day in Cardiff as Wanderers announced their return to the big time in style.

The great Nat Lofthouse looked on with tears in his eyes as his beloved club swept their old foes Preston North End aside to secure a promotion worth an instant £30million.

Not in his wildest dreams could Lofty have pictured where the Premier League path would actually lead to - the riches, the superstars, the European tours, or the eventual heartache.

At that point in time, Wanderers had been pieced together – begged, stolen and borrowed, in fact - by Sam Allardyce when money was not in plentiful supply. He had used 35 different players en route to the play-offs, organising an eclectic bunch of journeymen and rising stars into a unit that very nearly went up automatically.

But whereas the national media were quick to praise Jean Tigana’s sexy Fulham, or welcome 1995 champions Blackburn back into the top-flight fold, they massively under-estimated the hurt that had driven Allardyce and his players to ensure they left the Millennium Stadium as worthy winners.

The Bolton News:

Dean Holdsworth had sampled the pain of two play-off defeats and then lived his own personal nightmare 12 months earlier at Wembley when Big Sam’s Bolton were beaten on penalties by Aston Villa in the FA Cup semi-final, his own miss late in the game grabbing all the headlines.

“You look back and that pain really lingered,” he told The Bolton News. “We’d gone so close but for one reason or another it hadn’t happened. And Sam desperately wanted to be in the Premier League. He wanted that next step in the plan.

“We’d been to the FA Cup semi-final the year before but it hadn’t gone the way we’d prepared. He knew that and so everything we did in the build-up to the Preston game was to prevent that happening again.

“I certainly felt that I had something to make up to the fans. Sam had in his mind exactly how he wanted to approach the game. He’d planned for every inch of the play-off. He laid out every single instruction.”

Wanderers went into the play-off final in imposing form. They had lost just one of their last 12 league games and then rescued a result in the semi-final first leg against West Brom with two late goals from Gudni Bergsson and Per Frandsen.

The Bolton News:

They blitzed the Baggies in the second leg, Bergsson, Ricardo Gardner and Michael Ricketts on target in a 3-0 win every bit as imperious as the score-line sounds.

Bolton had built their success on 14 away wins and 20 clean sheets but Holdsworth believes the decision to invest £100,000 in relaying the turf at the Reebok played a major part in the late-season form, supplying the momentum needed for the Preston final.

“It had been a real pain to play on but halfway through the season they bit the bullet and paid for new expensive turf and it made the world of difference.

“We’d been doing it all away from home to that point but I don’t think we lost at home after it had happened.

“It meant that Sam could prepare for home games and just concentrate on the opposition without worrying that the pitch would be a factor and when we went into that final, I don’t think I have ever felt as prepared.

“I think I got man of the match. All my seasons at Bolton were ups and downs, a test of mental strength at times, but the Preston game was definitely one of the more enjoyable ones. On the day we were outstanding.”

Before the final Allardyce had insisted on players and families travelling down to Cardiff well in advance of the game to avoid last-minute distractions.

It also allowed Mike Ford and his backroom to break down the plan in minute detail, as Bolton looked to pack midfield playing 4-3-3 in a similar way they had against West Brom, relying on Gardner and Hansen’s industry from the flanks and Holdsworth’s experience in the middle.

The Bolton News:

Lofthouse also addressed the players in the build-up, his calm and composed presence lending another advantage to the Bolton camp.

Though Preston made a bright start to the game, it wasn’t long before Wanderers settled the nerves – Gareth Farrelly driving a low shot into the net from the edge of the box.

The lead should have been doubled by half time as Bo Hansen and Dean Holdsworth were denied by North End keeper David Lucas.

David Moyes’s side improved in the second half and only a magnificent save from Matt Clarke prevented David Healy from equalising.

Had Preston scored at that stage the momentum may have been with them to go on and win but Bolton’s experience told in the latter stages and they were able to draw their opponents in to hit with two superbly-executed counters at the bitter end.

First, sub Michael Ricketts was played through the middle, rounding the keeper to pass home his 24th goal of the campaign before Ricardo Gardner took full advantage of a tiring Preston defence to race in a third from halfway in stoppage time.

The celebrations could start. And start they did.

Lofthouse summed up the achievement: "I'm as proud as punch," he said."It's the proudest moment of my football life. This is magnificent. Marvellous."

Allardyce slugged Champagne, the smile hardly leaving his face throughout the post-match media conference. “At least he’s got rid of that slug on the top of his lip now,” laughed Kevin Nolan, poking fun at his former boss. “I can give him some stick now – but I wouldn’t have dared at the time. He’d have pinned me up against a wall and asked me what I was talking about.

“I can remember it like it was yesterday, well, the game. The celebrations are still a bit of a blur.”

Nolan was just about to turn 19 when he played in the play-off final and said excitedly after the final whistle that Bolton’s solitary goal next season would be to “stay up, by hook or by crook.”

The Bolton News:

But the former midfielder can recall sitting at the training ground to hear Allardyce present in great detail what he had planned in the new millennium – a blueprint which would come to fruition in glorious fashion.

“I remember sitting there in the middle of the season and Sam did a presentation to us all with Mike Ford, I think it was a seven-year plan,” he said.

“We were all sat there in rows and he was trying to tell us we’d be in Europe. You looked around and there were people laughing, some of the older ones – but he wanted us to visualise success.

“I felt a bit different. I knew I had time on my side. You listened to Sam, bought into what he wanted from you. And here he was explaining in detail how he was going to do it, short-term, medium-term, long-term strategies.

“I think we got there in six years. It was a pace that you could never have envisaged if you were sat in that room.”

Nolan would stay with Wanderers for another eight years, helping them not only stay in the Premier League but to qualify for Europe on two occasions.

He would find himself no longer playing alongside journeymen or loanees, but with bona fide global stars, but he says the same philosophy Allardyce imprinted on the group which gained promotion was used to fuel the elite names which followed.

“We got there because of the mentality,” he said. “You brought in players like Youri Djorkaeff but that was the easy bit, you had to make sure they were playing for something.

“It was all about winning. That attitude came from the manager and filtered all the way down through the club and it didn’t matter whether it was Ivan Campo, Fernando Hierro, Jay Jay Okocha, Nicolas Anelka, they all had to have it.

“I think back and for lads like me who had come through the play-off final, we had to work hard to show we deserved to be in that company.

“Gradually, the older players who were happy just playing in the Premier League were replaced with players who wanted that bit more. It was never about standing still.”

The Bolton News:

For Holdsworth, the play-off final very nearly spelled the end of his time with Bolton.

The club record signing was out of contract and considering a move to Italy.

But once Allardyce emerged from his celebrations he was able to talk the striker into an extended stay.

“A week after the final my contract was up and I was going to Italy to speak with another club," Holdsworth explained.

“I was on my way through the airport when Sam phoned me up. I asked where he’d been and he said he’d been partying.

“He wanted to know how the negotiations were going with Bolton, but they weren’t. Nothing had happened.

“Sam asked to give him until Monday but I was already walking towards my flight.

“We touched down and I was speaking to the president of the club when Sam called up offering me two years. I had to walk back in there and tell these Italian businessmen face-to-face that I wasn’t signing but I think they respected me doing it.

“They asked why the hell I wanted to stay in Bolton when I could have gone over there but it was simply the relationship I had with Sam and the people at the club. I felt it was going places.”