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05/06: Reports:

F.A. Cup Third Round, 07/01/06, 3.00pm
Bolton Wanderers
My, haven't you grown!
By Matt Rowson

Betty is seven now. Seven. Relatives who remember her as a two year old flower girl at our wedding blink in disbelief on having their attention drawn to this development. They'd blink again if they saw her. I see her once every couple of months and she's taller and more grown up on each occasion.

Her mother, of course, will be conscious that she's growing up. But she won't notice the difference every time she sees her, day by day, hour by hour. Such developments are much more dramatic when viewed from a distance, on a more occasional basis.

It's not just kids, of course. All people change, and places too. Going back to Headingley eleven-and-a-sodding-half years on, everything's different. When did that pub become a neon hell? When did that shop become this shop? Who thought it would be a good idea to put that there? What the hell happened to this place? (Above all, who let my brother buy a house here? As if any proof were needed that standards had slipped...)

Again, all these changes have happened independently. And all, most, will have been noted by locals. Oh, The Hyde Park has been taken over. Oh well. But individual events. Isolated events in the grand scheme of things. Not everything changing.

And so it is with Saturday's visitors. Alec Chamberlain compares Saturday's encounter with the Trotters to our memorable 1999 meeting at Wembley (and yes, it's something of a reversal for us to be nicking something from the Official Site rather than vice versa...); in reality, whilst Bolton of 1999 had had two recent flings with the Premiership (not Premier, not a Ship) these ventures weren't terribly successful. Bigger team, new stadium, yes, but the gap wasn't all that great. Only six years previously, Bolton had emerged from a decade in the lower divisions.

Now... it seems incredible that it's only five years since Bolton snuck up in the play-offs having looked anything but a top-flight side as we shared six points over our two League encounters. It seems at least that long since Bolton were rattled off as a side that might struggle against relegation from the top flight. In fact, it was only in 2003 that Bolton stayed up at West Ham's expense on the last day of the season... and since then Sam Allardyce's well-worn tactic of seeking out spoiled goods and, more often than not, setting them straight has established Wanderers as a top half side, a goal that's still tempting to think of as way beyond any Division Two chancers.

Allardyce's success might finally have attracted a plausible suitor this week, as the man deemed most likely to step in for the beleaguered Graeme Souness at St. James' Park. A north-east journalist on Radio 5 this evening warned darkly that "contrary to rumour, there's no obvious replacement" for Souness. Nonetheless, Allardyce's appeals for his current club to invest, and the implicit suggestion that he's taken Wanderers as far as he can on their current budget, might be timed to coincide with more than just the transfer window. He was, after all, top of Newcastle's list last time they changed their manager.

Bolton's style of play hasn't always won them praise, the professionally sanctimonious Alan Green getting particularly hoity-toity on the subject this weekend. Monday and Tuesday's coverage of our own local derby demonstrated how easily sour grapes gain headlines when nobody's particularly interested or listening so it should be no great surprise that Bolton have suffered from the same given the relentless coverage afforded to top flight talking heads; however Bolton's fairly rigid formation does ask a lot of players in certain key positions and as such some key absences in their ranks are likely to do us a few favours on Saturday.

These need to be set against suspensions to be served by Matthew Spring, Ashley Young and James Chambers, of course, and it will be interesting to see what part if any Ben Foster, Al Bangura and Jordan Stewart are able to play following Monday's "play-acting". Nonetheless, the absences at the spearhead of Bolton's formation of both the robust Kevin Davies and his most obvious deputy, El-Hadji Diouf, due to suspension and African Nations Cup duty respectively are significant. This leaves Jared Borgetti, reportedly courting offers from his home country with half an eye on Mexico's World Cup campaign, as the most likely target man.

In the absence of Diouf, energetic and unpredictable Portuguese youngster Ricardo Vaz Te seems likely start in the wide right attacking position, and whilst Stelios Giannakopoulos is available down the left, Allardyce may prefer to give a run to the talented but immobile Khalilou Fadiga, not selected by Senegal for the African tournament.

Another key position is the holding position at the back of the midfield, most frequently and increasingly successfully filled this season by on loan Lens midfielder Abdoulaye Faye; however he too is off with Senegal in Egypt, and with Ivan Campo serving a suspension following a sending off for Bolton's reserves (and publicly inviting offers from Malaga in Spain), Bolton will either field short-term signing Martin Djetou in this position, or withdraw veteran Gary Speed into a deeper role. One of the remaining midfield slots will almost certainly go to fading star Jay Jay Okocha, given special dispensation by Nigeria to play but also linked with a move away. On-loan Hidetoshi Nakata, used sparingly since his August arrival, might also get a start with Fabrice Fernandes also in with a shout of a rare appearance. Goal threat and chief source of attacking support down the centre Kevin Nolan is another to serve a well-timed suspension for a fifth yellow card, whilst any move for Feyenoord's Shinji Ono seems unlikely to be undertaken in time for the weekend.

At the back, Tunisian Radhi Jaidi is another to have departed for the African Nations' Cup. First choice duo of Tal Ben Haim, linked with Chelsea recently, and the brutal Bruno N'Gotty are both available, but either could be rested with both Djetou and Polish teenager Jaroslav Fojut both in contention. Either young Irishman Joey O'Brien or a rare Englishman Nicky Hunt will play at right back, however the left back position is easier to predict; Ricardo Gardner, who played as a winger at Wembley in 1999, is the only senior left back available with even his unlikely deputy, striker Henrik Pedersen, out with an achilles injury. Gardner is hence less vulnerable than others in the squad might have been to his current dip in form, and is reportedly uncomfortable on dodgy pitches which Ashley Young might have quite enjoyed if only he was playing...

Keeper Jussi Jaaskelainen, involved in some recent contract posturing, is another who could be rested, with Ian Walker in with a chance of coming in next door to the hospital in which he was born.

Both sides will, to a point, be grateful for what the draw has dealt them, since whilst both would be perfectly happy to move into the fourth round, the circumstances of the tie and of both sides' seasons mean that honorable defeat would be no great disaster for either.

Having survived some improbable circumstances in the past, however, our unbeaten record against the Trotters at Vicarage Road might be quite nice to hang onto...