Big Sam: My Bolton era was the time of my life – I would definitely go back

The former Trotters manager discusses his time at the helm of the club...

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Bolton was the club that allowed me to fulfill my childhood dream. A dream thousands and thousands of young lads have – to be a professional footballer.

Not only that, but I then got the chance to go back and manage there, too. That’s unbelievable.

But when you get that type of position, you become so focused on making that club successful because it means so much to you. Week to week, month to month, season to season, you’re so driven to making that club better and more successful.

When I got there, the club was clearly in a bad position, which is why I was given the job.

When I think back to how we ended up eight years later, it was honestly the greatest journey of my life as a football manager.

It doesn’t beat playing – kids dream of being footballers, not football managers – but to get that success at Bolton, with some of the players we got to bring to the club and the type of football we played, to qualify for Europe, winning a Cup Final… it was just one amazing journey after another.

Even now, I will say it was still such a shame to have left the club under the circumstances I did. It was a very, very sad decision to make. But that decision came from my mind, and at the time I just couldn’t let my heart overrule my head.

It broke my heart leaving Bolton. But, mentally, I had move on. At the time I left, the club unfortunately lacked the same drive I had. They didn’t have the ambition to achieve what I believed the staff, the team and I could accomplish.

There was no point in me staying there. Which was a really, really sad end to what was some of the best years of my life.

I made some amazing signings during my time at the club, and behind the scenes we used a system – me and all the staff, particularly the recruitment staff – when we got into the Premier League.

We basically sat down and said to each other; “Look, we’re in the Premier League now. The club didn’t think we’d manage it this quickly, but here we are.”

We made it to the top tier within 18 months, though I’d been given three years to do it.

It was obvious what we had to do: we needed to make sure that we got the players to survive, and then move forward.

We used the long-loan system at the time – but not the English one, one we adopted from abroad – where you get the player for the full season, which is a temporary transfer. This meant we could pay the players’ wages.

Most of those players were dying to move to the Premier League. It’s the best league in the entire world after all, and everyone knows that.

So, financially, it wasn’t a burden on the club if we didn’t manage to stay up. And that became a massive part of our recruitment drive in the early years, rather than offering long and expensive contracts.

When we managed to stay up and achieved moderate success, more and more of those players wanted to stay at Bolton. We did really well in signing players of such great quality from throughout Europe.

They came, and they enjoyed the football we were playing. Add to that the fact that we really loved working with them, too – it was a win-win. The club had such a fantastic time, which the fans won’t forget.

I’m often asked how I managed to make the signings that I did… Firstly, agents came to me and gave me the nudge and said certain players were interested in a move.

We also had a lot of staff who’d accumulated lots of visuals of Bolton Wanderers as a club, as well as imagery of the Premier League and the stadiums, and we would take those on the plane and go and visit the player and club. We’d show them off.

We would never invite the players to us, though. We’d always fly over to meet the various transfer targets in order to show our commitment. I would jet ove with my assistant manager and my recruitment team, and we’d put this video together of Bolton, the Premier League, and encourage them that this is the place they want to be. And, well, it obviously worked!

There were a couple of signings we came extremely close to but didn’t quite get.

Samuel Eto’o was one when he was playing for Mallorca. He really wanted to come to England, but unfortunately that didn’t happen.

The closest one, though, was actually during my time at Blackburn Rovers. That one was Robert Lewandowski.

We’d been over to watch him play – in fact, we’d actually done the deal and he was supposed to be flying over… And then a volcanic ash cloud meant he couldn’t actually get on the plane that day.

He ended up signing for Borussia Dortmund. We never saw him again! Obviously, we never realised what a huge player he was going to become, but wow, what a player he turned out to be. That was the biggest miss of my transfer targets.

There was Rivaldo, too. We met in Manchester at the Lowry Hotel. I think most people, at the time, thought it was Man United who were going to sign him.

They didn’t expect that it was Bolton that he was interested in coming to.

In the end, the club decided that he was perhaps a bit too much of a financial risk. So we didn’t quite get him, but just him actually coming to chat to us about the move was amazing.

Because of the players we already had, we were attractive to so many of the biggest names. Bolton itself too, we had such a good reputation at the time.

Would I ever go back to Bolton? Yes, but not as a manager.

One day, if they ever needed help, and they wanted to properly move forward, get back into the Premier League and re-invent themselves then I’d make myself available in some capacity.

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