IT may have taken place 25 years ago but Bruce Rioch can still reel off every detail of the 1995 play-off final that proved to be his last game in the Bolton Wanderers hotseat.

Over 120 pulsating minutes, his side had completed one of the most incredible comebacks Wembley had ever seen to take their place for the first time in the newly branded Premier League.

The victory was a culmination of the White Hot era, two promotions and several cup giant-killings which galvanised the town behind its team, creating memories that are still treasured to this day, turning its protagonists into legends.

Seemingly dead and buried at 2-0 down and facing a penalty to make it three, Keith Branagan’s storied save from Stuart Lovell minutes before half time was a plot twist any Hollywood scriptwriter would be proud to create.

And for Rioch, whose revolution was about to reach a conclusion at the end of his third year in charge, it marked the peak of his managerial career.

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“The footballing gods were with us that day,” he told The Bolton News. “But let me first say that without the team spirit and character those players produced, none of it would have been possible.

“It was a truly amazing day. There’s an old saying about 2-0 being a dodgy lead, and I don’t think it has ever been better proved.”

After vanquishing old foes Wolves in the semi-final, Rioch and the players spent time in Portugal to recharge batteries before the final and give him time to consider the line-up he would put out at Wembley.

“The hardest part of any manager’s job is actually picking the team and the way Reading had been playing I felt like we needed an extra man in the middle of the park, Neil McDonald,” he explained.

“We trained in such a way that we could switch and I felt confident if we needed just two in there that Jason McAteer and Alan Thompson would cope.”

Despite feeling well-prepared, Wanderers got caught by two early goals as the Royals produced some superb early football.

Lee Nogan’s turn and shot to beat Alan Stubbs for the first, Simon Osborn’s quick-thinking at a free-kick for Ade Williams’ second just 12 minutes in.

Reading chairman John Madejski stood dancing in his seat in the director’s box but the look of disgust on Keith Branagan’s face was only matched by Stuart Butt’s remark on co-commentary: “Sometimes you are lost for words. What on earth were the Bolton defence doing again then. I really don’t know?”

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Even Rioch was at a loss to explain what had happened.

“There was no explaining it. We’d gone 1-0, then 2-0 down, I’ll admit I was just hoping that we would get in at half time without conceding any more goals. And then you get the penalty.”

Michael Gilkes’ movement had been an issue throughout the first half but when McAteer’s late lunge tripped the winger on a raid into the box, the end looked near for Wanderers.

“For me, personally, my heart dropped,” Keith Branagan described. “At 2-0 I thought ‘we can recover this’ but at 3-0 it would be so difficult.

“Then it was about who was taking it because the manager usually does and he was a sub.

“So I had no idea – but I thought ‘what would I do?’ You would be some kind of cool player if you were to place it. Any right-footed player would most likely put his laces through it, so I went to my right.

“Then when I saw his run-up I knew I was going to my right. It was a massive penalty for them, it would have sealed the game.”

Luckily, Branagan’s hunch was right. Stuart Lovell’s spot kick was pushed away and the ball cleared. Bolton’s fans celebrated as if they had scored.

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“That was the moment,” Rioch said. “If Branny did not save it, I think it would have been nigh on impossible to get back into the game. When he did, there were only a couple of minutes left before half time, but I marched straight over the referee and said: ‘I’m making a substitution.’ “We brought Neil off, put Fabian Defreitas on. And when I walked into the dressing room I had in my mind that this wasn’t a lost cause and I wanted to make sure those players knew that too.”

Although Rioch billed the formation shift as “4-4-2” he had effectively changed the shape to 4-2-4 and had done so on an old piece of advice from his trusted scout, Ian McNeil.

“We had been talking a few years earlier about substitutions and it puzzled Ian why so often teams would bring off a striker and put on another striker, hoping to get back into a game,” he said.

“He’d say: ‘Goalscorers score goals and win you games.’ And looking around that team I had a lot of them. Even Thommo and Macca would chip in, it was just a case of making sure those players believed the game was not over.

“When I went into the dressing room there were a few players who looked down. I remember telling Alan Stubbs to get his head off the floor because that next goal was going to be crucial and if we could get it, then I knew my team had the character to go on and win the game.

“Looking back, just the knowledge they were going to a 4-4-2, had that extra attacking edge, it restored all the energy in the team.”

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After half time, a rejuvenated Wanderers would mount one of the most incredible comebacks in the history of play-off finals.

Not until the 75th minute did Owen Coyle grab the goal 30,000 Bolton fans so desperately wanted.

The Scot had moved out wide to supply some fine crosses throughout the second half but when he got on to the back post to head home a centre from McGinlay, the comeback was really on.

“Never in my life have I seen 30-40,000 people go from total ecstasy to despair,” Rioch said. “It is what made that game the most amazing one I have ever been involved in.

“Life is all about ups and downs, coping with different scenarios, but in that moment a goal changed the mood of every single person in Wembley.”

Two minutes from time, Stubbs strode majestically out of defence and played in Thompson. He saw Defreitas’s run and the Dutchman was able to spin his marker, Dariusz Wdowczyk, and slot a low shot under Hislop’s despairing dive to spark sheer pandemonium among the Bolton support.

“Wow, it’s so long ago,” recalled Defreitas, speaking from his home in Belgium where he works as a real estate manager. "You score goals and play in games and it passes you by when you are playing - it's only when you see videos 25 years later you sit back and say 'that was me, I did that'

The Bolton News: ON THE SCORESHEET: The Wanderers goalscorers celebrate after the 1995 Championship play-off final, from the left, Mixu Paatelainen, Fabian de Freitas and Owen Coyle

“It surprises me now and again when I meet people and talk about football how many people remember that final.

“But, of course, it was a moment I will never forget. It was the best moment of my football career.”

The question was, could Wanderers raise their game again?

It took just a few moments in the second half of extra time to supply an answer.

McAteer found a burst of energy to coast past two Reading defenders and back-heel for Coyle, his cross headed back at the far post by McGinlay and plunder home by Paatelainen.

“These Reading fans can pack up any hopes they have of the Premiership now.” Exclaimed Butt.

But the drama wasn’t over. With Osborn out of action, feeling cramp, McGinlay took a quick free-kick on the right to find Paatelainen and his low cross was stabbed in at the second attempt by Defreitas to make it 4-2.

Wanderers’ fans were in party mode but senses were shaken when Reading subs Jeff Hokinson and Jimmy Quinn conspired for the game’s seventh goal, with a minute left on the clock.

Bolton’s players killed off every second they could before referee Peter Foakes finally blew his whistle.

The Wanderers bench emptied on to the pitch – David Lee, who had missed the game through injury – hobbled on to embrace his team-mates at a pace few of them had managed in extra time.

“Getting promotion was the end of an extraordinary journey,” Rioch said. “And looking back I have to thank so many people for making it happen.

“I loved the club – I still do – and just feel so thankful for having been a part of the adventure.”