TWO decades on from the Greek Miracle, Stelios Giannakopoulos has revealed the influence Bolton Wanderers had in one of the biggest footballing shocks of all time.

Nobody gave Greece a hope as they travelled to Portugal in 2004, ranked 150/1 outsiders by the bookmakers, a relatively unheralded football nation, and without a win at either of the major tournaments for which they had previously qualified.

Fans were equally unconvinced back home, where Austrian coach Otto Rehhagel had failed to gain much traction after shedding some of the more popular players in his squad for those he felt had the right psychological make-up to succeed.

Stelios, the hard-working right-sided midfielder with an eye for goal, was among them. Twelve months before the tournament he had sealed a move to Bolton in the Premier League, leaving behind European football with Olympiakos.

He would go on to spend five years with the Whites, play 177 times and score 28 goals, and he credits the club with providing perfect preparation in the build-up to the Euros in a season where they finished eighth in the Premier League and runners-up in the Carling Cup final.

Speaking to The Bolton News, the 49-year-old said his mindset was changed by his move to English football.

“Playing for Bolton had helped me a lot when I looked into the eyes of the opposition,” he said. “You played against the top players week in, week out in the Premiership and you realised they were human beings, like you. They were not aliens, or something.

“You realise you have your own personality as a player and that you are capable of success.

“I had played for Olympiakos but only faced the big teams in the Champions League – Manchester United a couple of times, Juventus, Real Madrid, that kind of calibre.

“But when you play against Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, all the time, then it is a different story.

“I played in a Bolton team which had international stars. They were the big names in the national teams they played in too, Jay-Jay was captain of Nigeria, Fernando Hierro and Ivan Campo for Real Madrid and Spain, Bruno N’Gotty and Nicolas Anelka for France, Jussi for Finland, Ricardo for Jamaica, El-Hadji Diouf for Senegal, it was ridiculous how good the team was.

“And when you have a dressing room like this, you are not afraid of the opposition.”

The Greek squad had few superstars. Just eight of the 23-man squad played outside the country and of those, Giorgos Karagounis had been a bit-part player at Inter Milan, injuries had hampered Demis Nikolaidis’s time at Atletico Madrid and Zisis Vryzas had struggled to play regularly at Fiorentina.

Angelos Charisteas was perhaps the most recognisable name, scoring plenty of goals in Germany for Werder Bremen, and would eventually see his fame spike considerably.

But the eventual hero of the hour did not expect to be staying in Portugal much beyond the group stages, Stelios revealed.

“Angelos had already booked his marriage during the tournament,” he laughed.

“He kept on postponing, postponing, postponing because we were going through. I don’t think his wife minded and in the end the party was great, for sure.”

Greece took on the hosts in the opening game in Porto, and just seven minutes into the game had taken the lead through Karagounis. Angelos Basinas doubled the advantage from the penalty spot in the second half and Cristiano Ronaldo’s 93rd minute consolation counted for nothing.

Suddenly, the team were front page news.

“Nobody expected anything to be done by us, even the Greeks,” Stelios said.

“I have said many times that we wanted to leave a mark. We didn’t know how big it would be because previous times we had been to major tournament we had done nothing.

“And we had accomplished the mission from the first game, so that took the pressure off us completely.

“Our main goal was to give a good performance, win a game, score a goal. We did all that against Portugal. It was a huge relief to us and to the people back home.”

Another solid draw followed against Spain, which meant the Greeks only needed to avoid defeat against Russia in their final match to qualify. They lost 2-1, Vryzas scoring their consolation in what proved their only blip in the tournament, but still managed to squeeze through at Spain’s expense by virtue of goals scored.

Greece were billed as pragmatists, a defensive team which looked to snuff out opponents’ attacking talents, but Stelios believes they should have been given much more credit.

“There was a plan, we knew what we had to do on man-marking or zone-marking, but we got no credit for everything else,” he said. “Each player must make their own decisions in a split-second. You can have the best manager in the world – Guardiola, Ancelotti, Klopp – but you still need personalities on the pitch to make good decisions on their own.

“The higher the level of footballer, the higher the calibre, the better those decisions.

“Nowadays one of the best, in my opinion, is Toni Kroos at Real Madrid. If you watch how he plays the game, this is how you realise what potential a player can achieve.

“I think on that day, each of us were like a Toni Kroos of our generation.

“If you watch the highlights of the first game against Portugal, Paulo Ferreira, the right-back, had the ball and I took on board an instruction from Big Sam, I showed him inside the pitch.

“He lost possession, we countered, and we scored. All because of something I learned playing for my club at Bolton.

“Millions of people must have watched that game but not many will see that initiative, we got no credit because it is not easy for normal people to watch in that way, they see only the goals and the fancy dribbles.”

Greece’s reward for getting out of the group stage for the first time was a meeting with France, the tournament favourites and, on paper, a team which was in another league altogether.

Rehhagel had developed a reputation for not concentrating on tactical instruction, particularly in regard to opposition teams, but the 1-0 victory, which came courtesy of another Charisteas goal, proved to be a masterclass in defensive organisation which also caught the attention of a manager back home in Bromley Cross.

“In my opinion – that was the best French team in history,” Stelios said. “If you see the names in the squad, you would get dizzy. But I think we played maybe our best-ever game, offensively and defensively. It was a match that should be shown in a football seminar to people who want to learn the game.

“When we got back to Bolton Big Sam told me that the game should be taught to people in football classes. Of course, that told me we had done brilliantly.”

The next hurdle would see Greece pitted against the Czech Republic, a team boasting formidable attacking talents such as Jan Koller, Milan Baros, Pavel Nedved and Tomas Rosicky. But, once again, the Greeks found a way to preserve the clean sheet and force the game into extra time.

“The Czech team were probably the best team in that tournament behind us,” Stelios said. “They had some great players and they played good football on the day.

“In those games the small mistakes can be the difference between winning and losing. We got into extra time and had a very good delivery from the corner to (Troy) Dellas, and he headed the ball well at the near post.”

Dellas – once of Sheffield United – scored a ‘silver goal’, UEFA’s short-lived concession to the Golden Goal which had settled the Euro 96 and 2000 finals.

Greece had to hold on to half time in extra time to seal their place in the final against, who else, but the hosts Portugal.

Once again, Rehhagel’s side found a way to neutralise Ronaldo and Luis Figo, and just as they had against France, Angelos Basinas swung in a corner to find the head of Charisteas for what proved the winning goal 57 minutes into the game.

Two decades on, Stelios still struggles to sum up the enormity of lifting the trophy.

“To win the final, no matter what language I am speaking, English or Greek, I still haven’t found a word to describe what it felt like to win that game,” he said.

“The emotions at the final whistle, what went on after, it was one of the craziest dreams in football I can possibly have.

“When you are a small kid you want to achieve things and lift trophies, be remembered, and I can only use the word ‘blessed’ because it all came true.

“For Greece it was even bigger. We are not England, Spain, Germany, Brazil, Argentina, France or Italy, a country who expects to win a trophy.”

For the Bolton fans back home there was another treat in store. TV cameras picked up Stelios carrying his eldest son, Alexandros, and in his post-match interviews the youngster could be seen wearing a Wanderers shirt.

“That was one of the biggest highlights for the club as well, I was representing them and I was very proud that my son came up and wearing a Bolton shirt,” he said.

“It was a big moment because that picture and image went viral worldwide.”

Greek football has never reached the same heights again, although they did qualify for the next two World Cups and European Championships, reaching the quarter finals in Ukraine and Russia in 2012.

Stelios had a spell as the national team’s assistant coach and feels the current side has improved over the last few years to the point that it can qualify for the next World Cup.

“We had highs and lows over the next 10 years after the Euros, we got to the big tournaments again, and the gap is still there. It is not good but we are trying hard as a national team to recover.

“We were almost there in the final game against Georgia but did not manage to qualify again on penalties. It wasn’t good, again, but I think we are getting there.”