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BLIND, STUPID AND DESPERATE
 
00/01: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 3/12/00
Bolton Wanderers
versus
Watford
 
Cause and effect
By Matt Rowson

Here's a chicken/egg question for you. Was the Burnley postponement merely a feature of an appalling week, or was it the root cause of it? I mean, clearly most of us wouldn't have spent Saturday evening glowering quite so sourly at the TV had the game gone ahead, even if we'd lost it, but would the general bleakness that has followed have been quite as intolerable?

Difficult one. Without boring you with the small details of my own existence since Saturday, suffice to say that if there is a causal link stemming from the Burnley fiasco then it isn't obvious to me. On the other hand, the unsatisfied maelstrom that was arrested in its prime somewhere between 3 and 3:15 on Saturday cannot be a healthy thing. In the normal way it blows itself out, one way or another... either bursting into a contented afterglow or settling into sullen disappointment. Either way, it's had ninety-plus minutes to buffet around our emotions, stretch us one way then the other before deciding on its course. Why else are we invariably exhausted on a Saturday evening? Now I just feel restless, discontent. The same feeling as when you go on holiday convinced that you've forgotten something really important but without the faintest idea what it is. Awful. Hate it. Roll on Sunday.

Bolton fans must have sort of felt like that for at least twenty years, never having quite appeared to belong in whichever division they've found themselves in. In the 1979-80 season (which was when I started supporting Watford and hence when time began from a personal point of view), Bolton were in the top flight. I know this because my mate Tim gave me my first Panini Sticker, Wanderers defender Paul Jones, as a seventh birthday present. However they clearly did not belong there, since they finished very bottom.

Since then it's been a case of bobbing around unconvincingly between the top three divisions. Perhaps their stablest period was in a twilight zone of Third Division averageness under Phil Neal, but this illusion of permanence lasted as long as it took for Wanderers to start looking like a top flight side two divisions out of standing with cup wins at Anfield amongst other places. Since then Wanderers have perpetually been underdogs in the top flight or a big club in what's now Division One, a state of permanent discomfort which has developed the characteristic indignation in Trotters fans (as described in the October tie's preview) as a sort of defence mechanism. Perhaps what's called for is for Wanderers to apply to join the Scottish Premier League, or one of Europe's more stable championships (Belgium?). On the plus side, the Nationwide League would probably be a safer place for Barry Knight, baffling referee of Bolton's controversial play-off Semi-final last season. On the down side, we'd be deprived of what has become such a regular diet of three points that Wanderers websites now describe us as a bogey team.

The side that faces us in Sunday's enormous encounter is likely to show several changes to that which Tommy Mooney's penalty executed so enjoyably five weeks ago. Finn Jussi Jaaskelainen continues to keep out Steve Banks, although many more errors like the flapping which gifted Sheffield United a win on Saturday may call this state of affairs into doubt.

At the back, however, several changes have been enforced. The attack-minded John O'Kane has returned at right-back with Anthony Barness, whose handball at Vicarage Road proved so crucial, suffering a recent ligament strain. Robbie Elliott has dropped back from midfield to cover at left-back, his original position at St.James' Park, with Simon Charlton also injured. Dean Holden and Mike Whitlow are both also still out.

Most significant is the gap left by the commanding Mark Fish in the centre; after much speculation the South African international has returned to the Premiership with Charlton. It's tempting to suggest that the 700,000 fee, influenced by the imminent expiry of Fish's Bolton contract, represents a steal, but in the uncertain transfer climate brought about by EU pontification, it's difficult to put a value on any player at the moment. Hence Leeds pay an arbitrary 18m for Rio Ferdinand...I'm tempted to draw analogy with parameter estimates in non-convergent non-linear models, but only the Stattos amongst you are likely to get it, so I won't bother.

Fish's short-term cover, alongside the ever-dependable Gudni Bergsson, has been the slightly less reliable Paul Warhurst, but Sam Allardyce has made no secret of his search for a more permanent replacement. Likely candidates appear to be Strasbourg's Cameroon defender Pierre Njanka, granite Coventry centre-half Colin Hendry and the ever-popular Paul Butler of Sunderland, currently on loan at Wolves.

Wanderers will also be weakened in midfield on Sunday, most notably by the one-match suspension served by Per Frandsen, impressive at Vicarage Road but still a mouthy bastard. Teenager Kevin Nolan, another to impress in our earlier encounter, is likely to play, as is Ricardo Gardner, whose bleached hair doesn't make it easy to take him seriously. Frenchman Franck Passi has returned to the starting eleven of late, whilst Bo Hansen continues to flatter to deceive. Another option would appear to be the elaborately christened John Gope-Fenepej, about whom I've been able to discover absolutely nothing, somewhat disappointingly. Gareth Farrelly has been suffering from a hamstring problem, but may return.

Up front, Michael Ricketts continues to impress and to add to his healthy goal tally, but his foil is not so obvious. One web rumour this week has located Dean Holdsworth at Priestfield in conference with Andy Hessenthaler, which if true would appear to rule him out. Dane Carsten Fredgaard is on loan from Sunderland having failed to make an impression at the Stadium of Light, and his move may be made permanent. The blunt Ian Marshall is also an option, but Isaiah Rankin has returned to Bradford since our last encounter.

Bolton's home form is, in comparison with that of the rivals with whom they are jostling for position, less formidable than their away record, a fact which Sam Allardyce explains in part by an apparent lack of atmosphere at the Reebok Stadium. Given our recent history and the current league table, lack of atmosphere shouldn't be a problem for this one, particularly with so many Hornets boiling over with two weeks' worth of energy.

I don't give a damn that it's on the telly, I don't give a damn that it's Sunday or what time the kick-off is. Games like this are not to be missed.