FORTY years ago, Wanderers fans were subjected to one of the most drawn-out great escapes in history.

George Mulhall’s side looked doomed to relegation from Division Two after shipping seven goals on the plastic pitch at QPR to leave them entrenched in the bottom three with two games remaining.

But in the very first season where victory was worth three points, the Whites put together a remarkable late burst to not only save their own skins – but also leave Sheffield Wednesday boss Jack Charlton hopping mad in the car park.

Only a few years earlier, Wanderers had been riding high under Ian Greaves in the First Division with Frank Worthington topping the goal charts and crowds averaging way over 20,000 at Burnden Park.

By the turn of 1982 interest had waned significantly. Attendances had halved, plunging Bolton into a financial mire accelerated by some big money signings which had failed to pay off.

Jim ‘Seamus’ McDonagh had kept goal for Greaves in the good times and returned to Burnden Park from Everton in the summer of 1981 in a deal worth £90,000 plus Mike Walsh.

The Ireland international admits the club had changed greatly in the two years he was away.

“The club was going through some tough times,” he told The Bolton News. “It had been such an exciting period in the First Division but it’s like anything, when the results aren’t there then it drops off and you could see the money wasn’t there anymore.

“It all gets on top of you. When you are winning games you can’t wait to get out there but I think at that time it became a bit of a grind.”

Luck was not on Bolton’s side from the off. Peter Reid suffered a broken leg just four games into the season and Mulhall’s side won just two of their opening 12 league games.

Jeff Chandler was signed from Leeds United in the October and recalls looking around the dressing room and the time and wondering how results had dipped so badly.

“There were some really good players in that team,” he said. “You had Len Cantello, who had come in for a lot of money, and it’s hard to say why it just didn’t happen for him at Bolton.

“He had bags of ability but it’s fair to say his game was with the ball rather than without it. In that struggling team he just didn’t get enough possession to make a difference.

“And also you never know what is going on off the pitch. These days people are happy to talk about their personal lives and what might be happened but back then you kept it all quiet.

“On paper you looked at the team and thought it should have been much higher in the league. You had Brian Kidd, Paul Jones, Alan Gowling, Pete Nicholson, Peter Reid – all who’d played in the top division. But the place was really struggling.”

Wanderers had struggled without a recognised goal-getter.

John Thomas had come through the ranks but would not catch fire until his second spell a couple of years later, youngsters Wayne Foster and Dave Hoggan were still finding their way, and Tony Henry – a £120,000 purchase from Manchester City – did what he could from midfield, finishing top scorer on 13 league goals.

Chris Thompson would be the only other player to break into double figures and his form would unknowingly have a knock-on effect on Chandler’s career.

“When I came to Bolton I was a midfielder,” he explained. “I’d play behind the front two at Leeds but when I came to make my debut against Leicester City George Mulhall pulled me to one side and said Chris was playing there and he wanted me to play on the left.

“And that’s pretty much where I stayed. Chris grabbed quite a few goals that season with me cutting in on my right foot from that side.”

Despite a flurry of form at Christmas, Bolton barely poked their head above the halfway point in the table and by April they had fallen into the bottom three.

Incredibly, Mulhall had tried to arrest the slide with an ambitious trip to Nigeria - but the whistle-stop trip to West Africa would also end in difficulty.

A game against a Nigerian All-star XI had to be put back 24 hours because the club's kit and supplies were lost on the way to Lagos.

They were beaten 4-1 and a second game was quickly cancelled as the players jetted back to earn a 1-0 win against Sheffield Wednesay thanks to a goal from Wayne Foster. 

The Whites hit rock bottom on QPR’s infamous plastic pitch at Loftus Road.

“I remember Reidy pulling me before the game and saying ‘I don’t really fancy this pitch’ and he was dead right, it was horrible,” McDonagh recalled.

“We had played a back five with Alan Gowling as sweeper, travelling down on the Friday so we could actually train on the pitch.

“On the day of the game they drenched it with water. I remember one shot bouncing over me like a basketball and down under the bar. It was ridiculous.

“That sort of surface is OK for kids but you play on grass, that’s how it should be.”

John Gregory, Gary Micklewhite, Mike Flanagan (2) Simon Stainrod, Clive Allen and Terry Fenwick (pen) scored for Rangers, with Tony Henry scoring the consolation from the penalty spot.

The defeat had been so shocking, manager Mulhall insisted on pouring himself a large scotch in the press room after the game, sinking the drink in one go before adding: “At least let me take something away from here!”

“Rangers scored seven but they could have doubled it.”

Chandler had an even more miserable afternoon as he returned to the capital.

“I used to watch them as a kid and lived half a mile from the ground,” he said. “I had loads of family there to watch the game and was excited all week about playing there.

“But it was like playing on concrete and I think I got three touches all day.

“Terry Venables and George Graham were managing QPR at the time and they had such an advantage with that plastic pitch.”

The result left Bolton in a precarious position with two games remaining. Only two victories would do against Derby County and Sheffield Wednesday – and even then, it would need the likes of Grimsby Town and Wrexham not to win their games in hand.

Chris Thompson was the hero against Derby on May 4, grabbing a winner in the final couple of minutes in a see-saw game.

But Jack Charlton’s Owls came to Burnden with automatic promotion within touching distance.

Their form had faltered in the weeks leading up to the game – a damaging 4-0 defeat at Graham Taylor’s promotion-bound Watford and draws against Chelsea and Rotherham handing Norwich a chance to jump above them into third spot.

A victory at Bolton would have left them needing only a point against the Canaries at Hillsborough on the final day but Chandler recalls seeing the Whites at their very best that day.

“I remember the game well because they brought a big crowd, thinking it would be a promotion party,” he said. “They had a good side as well, Terry Curran had gone there and they had been up the top all season.

“On the day, though, we absolutely deserved the win. And that was the disappointing thing with that squad, we could turn it on when we needed to but for whatever reason we couldn’t stay consistent.”

McDonagh remembers a furious Charlton patrolling the car park after the game.

“Jack was absolutely raging,” he said. “I just remember peeking my head outside and seeing him kicking this can around the car park.

“He must have thought they were up when they came to Bolton but he had steam coming out of his ears. We just kept out of his way!”

Wanderers’ season was completed on May 8 but Cardiff’s final game at home to Champions Luton Town was not played for another nine days.

Wrexham’s survival fight was extinguished with a defeat against Crystal Palace and Bolton were finally able to breathe easier as David Pleat’s Hatters did them a favour with a 3-2 win at Ninian Park to send Cardiff down.

Bolton were safe but the financial problems would continue to bite. Mullhall was replaced by John McGovern, who was quickly instructed to get the wage bill down.

“John was told he had to get rid of every player earning more than £250 a week,” Chandler recalled. “They couldn’t do much with me because I’d signed a three-year deal – they couldn’t afford to get rid of me – but that was it for a lot of the lads.

“Reidy was on a week-to-week contract by that stage but people like Len Cantello and Brian Kidd, that was that.

“When you look at some of the players they brought in after that – Mark Came, George Oghani, Brian Borrows, Tony Caldwell – it was unbelievable what the manager did with shirt buttons at the time.”