IT is 30 years since Bruce Rioch first walked through the door at Burnden Park to launch a White Hot era of football that no Bolton Wanderers supporter will ever forget.

Two promotions, a League Cup final and a run of audacious giant-killings were crammed into three successful season’s under Rioch’s watch as Legends were made.

Three decades on, The Bolton News sat down to talk with one of Wanderers’ greatest-ever managers to talk in detail about his time with the club.

The Bolton News:

A CAR turned from Manchester Road into the car park at Burnden on a quiet Sunday morning in May 1992 and pulled up outside the famous old stadium; three men got out.

It was a couple of weeks after Bolton Wanderers had played their last game of the season, beating Stoke City 3-1 with goals from Mark Patterson, Mark Seagraves and Andy Walker, and matchday litter still blew around the cavernous concrete stands.

Despite the result, manager Phil Neal had parted ways with the club, a 13th placed finish not enough to convince the board nor the disaffected supporters that better times were on the way. And how a tired, jaded Burnden Park longed for better times.

The Bolton Evening News had speculated on who would be tasked with talking Wanderers forward, pushing Mick Mills and Bobby Campbell as Neal’s most likely successors. Little did the newspaper know but another man had already been given a guided tour ahead of a job interview. And he was about to change the football club’s path forever.

The men who walked round the pitch that morning were chairman, Gordon Hargreaves, chief executive, Des McBain, and former Scotland international, Bruce Rioch, who had recently left employment at Millwall.

In 1992, Burnden Park was approaching its centenary year. The stadium had survived the financial hardship of the 1980s but not without the addition of an incongruous grey supermarket built on a huge chunk of the North Stand. Elsewhere, there were echoes of its glorious footballing history but like so many football grounds of the time, it was showing its age.

Rioch recalls his first impressions as he paced around the pitch, the stands and the hallways at Burnden, listening to Hargreaves and McBain give a potted history of the four-time FA Cup winners before driving up to the Georgian House Hotel for the formal interview.

“I got the feel of a real football club,” he told us. “But it was clear there was work to do and they needed to tidy it up.

“We drove up to Blackrod after I’d walked around the ground and chatted to Gordon and Des and when I sat down the first question that I got from one of the directors was ‘so, what do you think of the stadium?’ “I said they had a huge front door – but it was scratched, it’s dirty and it needs repainting and finishing properly. That’s the first entry to your football club.

“I could see them looking around at each other thinking ‘what’s he going on about?’ “Then I explained that I’d walked into the dressing room on that Sunday morning and all the bandages and plasters were still lying on the floor in the dressing room.

“Imagine if Her Majesty the Queen had walked in, what would their thoughts be then? And that set the standard.

“We had a good chat, talked about a number of things, but I couldn’t lie about my first impression. The place needed a good scrub and it wasn’t what I wanted or was looking for.”

The Bolton News:

Even though he had surprised the board with his blunt assessment, Rioch had impressed suitably to be offered the job, officially taking office on May 29, 1992.

That summer, Burnden would get the Challenge Anneka treatment as Hargreaves and the board invested in Rioch’s plan to smarten things up.

Born into a military family, Rioch – then 44 – was unashamedly detail-oriented. The ‘sergeant major’ tag was used lazily as a criticism later in his managerial career at clubs like Arsenal, but at Bolton he had correctly established that standards had been allowed to slip on and off the pitch.

Even the dugout had not escaped the new manager’s attention. Before a ball was kicked in anger, he insisted that his vantage point would be nearer to the pitch than that of his opponents.

“I wanted to be closer to the action,” he said. “Where the dugouts were, I’d have had to run about 10 meters across the track and up the bank to stand on the touchline. I didn’t want to do that, I wanted to be closer so that if I wanted to pass some information on I could.

“And we didn’t build one for the other team at the time, we left them doing shuttle runs.

“I remember Gordon asking me if we should build one for the visitors and I told him ‘no, leave it where it is!’ “Gordon eventually came along to repaint the dressing rooms and corridor areas, it was just about raising the standards and someone seeing it with a different eye.”

Rioch is now enjoying retirement near Falmouth with his wife Jane. He has not coached football since the pandemic but still keeps his eye in with local clubs and helps out with what he can.

Three decades on, he may be forgiven for forgetting some of the names and faces he encountered at Burnden. Not a jot of it. With dizzying speed he spun through the cast who helped him in those early days at Bolton, from physios to scouts, ticket staff to commercial men, in the same warm tone.

The most effusive praise, however, was reserved for the man who had picked him up that Sunday morning.

“I still keep in touch with Gordon Hargreaves to this day,” he said. “And when I look back, that relationship between a manager and chairman, manager and board, is integral to any success you have in football.

“Me and Gordon used to meet up nearly every Thursday evening in a small restaurant for something to eat and a chat for a couple of hours, fill him in with the day-to-day running of the place, my thoughts, my ideas, so he knew exactly what was coming from my point of view.

“Then when it came to the board meetings the chairman already knew what had been discussed and if he wanted to speak to the other board members he could do so. We were all up to speed with the plans and thoughts we had.

“Sometimes I’d buy Champagne for the board meetings and put it in ice buckets. I can remember some of the directors walking in and going ‘oh dear, who have we bought today?’ “But it wasn’t necessarily that, it was more about camaraderie, building spirit. We’d have a glass of Champagne, we’d talk. Looking back now it is hard to convey just how good it felt to have those kind of relationships at a football club, it was incredible.”

Before we got to the players – each explained with loving rationale for why they were signed and what they brought to the team – Rioch also wanted to acknowledge the role that two of his backroom staff also played in those glorious White Hot years.

Colin Todd would have success in his own right as a Bolton boss, creating arguably the most attractive and free-flowing team in the club’s history soon after Rioch left for Arsenal. But as assistant boss, the pair worked seamlessly to create and hone a successful team.

The third point of the triangle was Scotsman, Ian McNeil. His role in Bolton’s glory years could be measured by the huge outpour of tributes from former Wanderers when he passed away at the age of 85 in 2017.

Rioch admits he owes the two men a lot.

“Toddy had been my assistant at Middlesbrough and we’d had four years together, we knew each other well,” he said. “I then went to Millwall and he had a spell in charge at the Boro, so in those intervening years we had both been looking at players and that gave us a head start.

“When I asked him if he wanted to come to Bolton we also brought Ian McNeil in from Millwall and it is hard to imagine how many hours the three of us had spent on the road, abroad, looking at players.

“We had a great trust. When Colin or Ian came back and said we should sign a player, we’d trust the judgement, it was never a case of ‘no, I want to see him myself’ although sometimes we’d go together and have another look. I had great faith in their judgement.”

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