What is it with Scotland and football managers? Ever since Sir Alex Ferguson set the blueprint for management for the modern age, chairmen across England have been falling over themselves to get themselves the next big thing from across the border. While English bosses still look years away from finding a maiden Premier League title winner, Scotland already have two (from a total of five) in their ranks. If there’s something in the water in the Welsh valleys then there must be something in the half-time oranges in the Scottish highlands.
The latest to fall in the category of young, successful Scottish manager is Bolton Wanderers’ Owen Coyle, who at Bolton has largely crept under the radar to lift his side to their current position of sixth. Well he shall be allowed to creep no longer, for Coyle’s achievements deserve to be shouted from the rooftops.
Turn the clocks back exactly a year and Bolton, under the weary tutelage of Gary Megson, were nursing the wounds of a 5-1 defeat to Aston Villa and lying in an all too familiar position of 16th. Megson didn’t like the fans, who ironically dubbed him ‘Ginger Mourinho’. The fans didn’t like Megson, seeing him as negative and lacking ambition. The inevitable divorce was filed two days short of New Year and Bolton chairman Phil Gartside set about getting his man.
With Coyle installed (after no little resistance from his former club Burnley), he set about changing the club and their style. Progress was slow at first, and many questioned whether Coyle had made the right choice as they laboured to overtake Burnley and move clear of relegation but survival was achieved and Bolton have not looked back.
With a third of the season passed, the Trotters now only lie behind the four pre-season favourites for the title race. Supporters now talk optimistically of Europe rather than looking over their shoulder at relegation, and only Arsenal and Liverpool can count themselves Premier League conquerors of Wanderers this season. Though perhaps most remarkably of all, Bolton are in danger of becoming fashionable.
That was a task would have seemed beyond Dolce & Gabbana, but in less than a year Coyle is well en route. Respect for Bolton has always been begrudged; from the days of the belligerent and arrogant Allardyce to Megson when…well when it was hard to find much respect at all. But the source of most of the ill feeling was the dreaded long-ball. Undeniably effective but a nightmare for the puritans, eventually even chairman and fans were worn down by the territorial game.
Gartside had tried this road before and found a dud in Sammy Lee, but Coyle has mixed intricacy with efficiency, and remarkably with largely the same side that were routinely booed off under the previous regime. Gary Cahill, and remarkably Kevin Davies, can now retire with England caps to their name, Johan Elmander has regenerated into a lethal goalscorer and even Zat Knight is rediscovering form. With one of the smallest squads in the division, Bolton can be thankful to have seven ever-presents in their ranks but having a side that picks itself is usually an indication of quality of performance.
Coyle has stripped the Wanderers of their vice and replaced it with a more horizontal approach; the goals at Wolves this weekend included a solo effort from Elmander that would not be unbefitting of Dimitar Berbatov, and a team manoeuvre that would have been at home at the Emirates. ‘Doing a Bolton’ is slowly morphing into ‘doing a Stoke’; the more team goals of real quality rain down on the Reebok, the more Bolton lose their tag.
Of course it helps that he appears to be a nice guy off the pitch too. Burnley fans may well scoff but top managers go nowhere without ambition and Coyle is usually full in his praise of the opposition post-match. A teetotal Scot (similar in rarity to a modest Frenchman), his love for the game is infectious and even as I type, Coyle is on the scoresheet playing up front for his club in a friendly match. Andy Cole, notoriously difficult to please, described him as having the ability to make his players feel 10 feet tall and ranked him second only behind Ferguson in the list of managers he played under.
It may be in time that Coyle hits a ceiling at the Reebok Stadium but it appears in the meantime he is proving to the natives that refinement and results are not necessarily mutually exclusive – and helping redefine the concept of ‘doing a Bolton’.