When Big Sam Went Global: Remembering The New England Manager's UEFA Cup Campaign With Bolton Wanderers

The imminent appointment of Sam Allardyce as England manager has split opinion, but you can’t accuse the well-travelled 61-year-old of lacking experience.

Big Sam has seen and done most things in football – bar actually winning any major trophies, obviously – and as he gets set to don the Three Lions and do his best Mike Bassett impression, let’s have a look back at when he went global.

Here’s the story of his one and only European campaign with Bolton.


It’s October 2005, and a fantastic sixth-place finish the previous season had seen Bolton qualify for Europe for the first time ever.

After a 4-2 aggregate win over the Bulgarian side Lokomotiv Plovdiv in the first round, they had been placed in a fairly daunting looking Group H, but Allardyce was in confident mood after being paired with Sevilla - who at this stage had yet to win a tournament they’ve now won five times – Zenit St Petersburg, Besiktas and Portuguese side Vitoria Guimaraes.

Lokomotiv Plovdiv v Bolton Wanderers : News Photo

‘We are in an excellent group with some very good sides who will make it difficult for us,’ he said.

‘At this level all matches will be hard but we are here on merit and we look forward to seeing where we might be travelling in Europe.’

That travel was going to be limited to just two countries to begin with, as UEFA adopted the bizarre format which saw three teams qualify from groups of five having played each team only once.

And so Bolton began in Istanbul, facing a Besiktas side in turmoil following the resignation of coach Riza Calimbay just three days earlier. That didn’t seem to affect the hosts initially though, as they took the lead through big-boned Brazilian forward Ailton, only for the Mexican Jared Borgetti to equalise from an El-Hadji Diouf cross to earn a share of the spoils for Big Sam, who claimed that his side ‘smothered them in terms of attacking flair’ in the second half. Sounds painful.

That smothering could only garner a point, but better was to follow when Zenit St Petersburg visited the Reebok Stadium two weeks later.

On a wet and wild Lancashire night, Kevin Nolan’s first half goal and a fine performance from Jussi Jaaskelainen – ‘top end’ said Allardyce – earned Bolton a first win in the group, with Andrey Arshavin denied by the Finnish stopper in injury time.

Big Sam was on the board, and by now he’d come to own Thursday night TV, with his bi-monthly appearances before Bolton games seemingly designed so he could try to overcome his image as a gruff, long-ball merchant by showcasing his grasp of modern football technology. That worked well, eh?

On the pitch, Guimaraes was the next stop, and after future Southampton forward Marek Saganowski looked to have won it for the hosts with a late goal, Allardyce threw on Ricardo Vaz Te, who immediately equalised with a fine strike into the top corner. ‘I thought his first touch could have been a bit better’ joked his beaming gaffer.

It meant that Bolton were almost there, with another 1-1 draw – a third in four games – at home to Sevilla securing qualification for the last 32, a feat which Allardyce refused to get carried away about because ‘we’ve got Everton away at the weekend.’ They went to Goodison Park and won 4-0.

Advancing as the third-placed team in their group meant that Bolton had to face a group winner in the last 32, and when Jean Fernandez’s Marseille were drawn out of the hat, they were given little chance.

‘If we overcame Marseille it would send a real message to the whole of Europe, showing what we are about,’ roared Allardyce. ‘All the players know, and I know, how important it is to raise the roof.’

Roof-raising expectations revealed, Big Sam’s boys would not yield, and they deserved more from a goalless first leg at the Reebok which featured a blatant penalty area handball from Frederic Dehu which went unpunished. ‘An absolute screamer, blatant, definite, 120%-er,’ offered Big Sam. ‘If he (Portuguese referee Olegario Benquerenca) hasn’t given that then he’ll never give anything.’

Bolton Wanderers' Tal Ben Haim closes do : News Photo

Sadly it proved to be crucial, as a Marseille side featuring Franck Ribery, Samir Nasri and Fabien Barthez recovered from a Barthez error to win the second leg 2-1, with Tal Ben Haim’s own goal being the difference between the sides over 180 minutes.

It was a sickener for Allardyce, who had been unable to travel with the team to France because of illness. He showed up in time for the game, but left post-match duties to assistant Sammy Lee.

‘This is the start and not the end of the journey,’ said Lee after the game, misunderstanding the concept of the start and end of things.

Despite that, it was indeed all over for Big Sam, who would lead Bolton to seventh place in 2006/07 only to resign following a disagreement with chairman Phil Gartside over transfer funds.

Lee took over but was quickly replaced by Gary Megson, whose Bolton side drew with Bayern Munich and beat Atletico Madrid on the wild European ride which would follow, but it was a ride only made possible by Allardyce, who is now set for a long-awaited return to the global stage.

Long-awaited? Really?

Yeah, let’s go with that.


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