THERE will be many among the 30,000-plus following Wanderers to Wembley tomorrow who never experienced the 1995 play-off final first hand, and whose only touchstone for the gut-wrenching drama against Reading are the tales of those who watched a classic unfold.

One man who remembers every moment of theatre that late May afternoon will be willing Ian Evatt and his team on from more tranquil surroundings at his home in the South West, no less delighted to see his beloved club back on an upward trajectory.

Bruce Rioch spent just three years in charge of Bolton, but such was the transformative nature of his time in the dugout from the summer of 1992, there are books being written about his impact more than 30 years on, and his philosophies are still the stuff of conversation among supporters to this day.

It should come as little surprise that the affection is reciprocal. And Rioch has wished Ian Evatt the best of fortunes when he leads his team out against Oxford United.

“It will be a wonderful day at the end of a very long and successful season,” he told The Bolton News.

“I will be watching, for sure. Football clubs never leave you, no matter when you move from one to another.

“The three years that I had at Bolton were sensational. Three years with an amazing chairman in Gordon Hargreaves, an amazing board of directors, fantastic fans that went from 5,000 to 25,000 or however many would go to those big games at Wembley.

“It was an amazing group of players and absolutely everybody played a part. They are great memories, and they can never take them away.

“I want to wish the board, the management, the coaching staff, the players and the fans a wonderful day. Come out on top, secure the victory that will take the club back up to the Championship. It would be wonderful.”

The Bolton News: Bruce Rioch will be watching from his home in the south west willing Wanderers on to victoryBruce Rioch will be watching from his home in the south west willing Wanderers on to victory (Image: NQNW)

Rioch can recall his first experiences of playing at Wembley were not ideal.

“The first thing I learned was not to play the occasion at Wembley, play the game,” he said.

“My first trip there, I was enamoured with the stadium, the crowd, and I thought ‘wow, this is fantastic’ but I forgot about the game. I think it was the League Cup final, Villa v Tottenham, and they beat us 2-0. That taught me a lot.”

A few years later Rioch returned as a Scotland international to suffer a famous 5-1 defeat against England, another harsh lesson which he took into his managerial career.

His final season with Bolton would see two trips to the old stadium, the first ending in a narrow defeat against Premier League Liverpool in the Coca Cola Cup final. A second followed shortly afterwards, which will live long in the memory.

“We saw that day that in the space of 45 minutes the atmosphere can change in a football stadium – from quite quiet to euphoria. That is how wonderful football can be,” he said.

The comeback against Reading is the stuff of legend. Two down, a penalty save from Keith Branagan gave Rioch scope to change to a more attacking side in the second half. A match won 4-3 after extra time went down as one of the greatest play-off finals of them all.

“I will never forget Branny, ever, in my whole lifetime. That penalty save,” Rioch laughed.

“There were many things that changed the game, Fabian De Freitas coming on, but that moment, it had a massive bearing.

“When I look back at Branny, I had him at Millwall but as a back-up to Brian Horne. I remember ringing Reg Burr, the chairman there, and saying to him: ‘I know you don’t really want him, why don’t I just take him off your hands? He went: ‘OK!’

“It was a free transfer but if he played so-many games, I think we gave them something like £5,000.

“I said ‘I’ll take him, you have Brian, who was England’s Under-21s keeper, and we’ll see what we can do with him. What a transfer, and what a man. He was priceless.

“Wembley is a great day out for everybody, but it is a day to produce your best performance.

“I’d always say to my teams: ‘Go out there and put on a performance that they cannot match.’ “It took longer than we’d planned that day at Wembley but they did in the end.

“The one thing we did on the day when you look back, the front line we had was McGinlay, Paatelainen, De Freitas and Coyle – all strikers. All goal-scorers. You need people to finish it in the box.”

Rioch is confident another club legend will be looking down on his club at Wembley.

“I used to go in every morning to Burnden Park and the door opposite my office was Nat Lofthouse’s,” he said. “I used to open his door and say: ‘Morning Nat!’ And he’d reply: ‘Morning cocker!’

“I will never forget it. Lofty was the one who introduced me to the BEN (the Bolton Evening News). I said I needed to go down and speak to the media and asked him if he could open some doors for me, and he said: ‘Leave it to me.’

“We both went down to the offices to build up a friendship, a relationship, and let them know the plans we had and so on.

“He was another magnificent man. He would be proud.”