Thanksgiving: a time to ignore the number of calories in your dinner and count your blessings, instead. There's still a month to go before us Brits get stuck into the nation's turkey population, but if the people of Bolton were to celebrate thanksgiving, the speeches would go something like this: "Thank you for bringing us Owen Coyle."
Bolton Wanderers enter the festive season sat fifth in the Premier League table. You can take the shine off that by adding that this campaign has seen the top teams stumble and falter more than ever, that there are only eight points between fifth and 18th, or even that it wasn't uncommon to see Bolton up there during the Sam Allardyce era. But come on, Scrooge, they've played some lovely soccer to get there.
Which is not the kind of compliment Bolton teams are used to getting -- not in the last 50 years, anyway. Under Allardyce, the soccer was tailored to survival: play the teams you can play, suffocate those you can't. By the time Gary Megson arrived in 2007, Bolton was bottom of the table with a minus-seven goal difference after 10 games: "defend, defend, defend," read the manifesto. Bolton stayed up, but its reputation as a bunch of hoof-and-hope cloggers was set.
A year ago, Bolton was beaten 5-1 by Aston Villa -- "humiliated," as the
He'd spent a couple of seasons as a Bolton player in the 1990s before returning to his native Scotland, signing for eight different clubs before ending up at St Johnstone in 2005. The chairman, Geoff Brown, made him player-manager. "Owen was enthusiastic, could communicate well, and he knew all the players in Scotland, he had great knowledge," Brown explains. "I knew he could identify players and get them behind him."
It was a knack that caught the eye of Burnley's board a couple of years later, as St Johnstone prepared for Scotland's Challenge Cup final. Rapt by his passion for the game and commitment to the fans, chairman Barry Kilby and director Brendan Flood emerged from talks with Coyle comparing him to Liverpool legend Bill Shankly. He soon made the people happy (local crime rates actually dropped) by lifting Burnley into the top flight for the first time since 1976.
Coyle got Burnley playing entertaining pass and move football by adding selective new signings -- he bought former Manchester United prospect Chris Eagles, a player that many United fans had hoped would eventually get his chance -- to the squad he inherited and massaging their egos as well as their aching muscles. "I love the passing game," he said. "Of course it's about winning, but we have a duty to entertain." Sound familiar?
At Bolton, Coyle has breathed new life into a team that had looked in real danger of being sucked back into the Championship without putting up much of a struggle. The victory over Newcastle and a 4-2 win over Tottenham Hotspur, earlier in the month, were eye-catching not just because of the scorelines but thanks to the way Bolton moved through its opponents, pinging the ball across the turf in neat little triangles.
The nine goals scored demonstrate the range that the welding of Bolton's traditional strengths with a more attacking, flamboyant ethos has produced: Kevin Davies, Gretar Steinsson and Chung-Yong Lee have all profited from slick team moves that put them into the area and the ball onto their laces. Johan Elmander has shown off pace, determination and accuracy (as well as some wonderful footwork, particularly against Wolves). Not forgetting the trusty long ball, with which Davies found Martin Petrov to finally finish Spurs off.
Coyle's determination to play this way -- "Owen will always want to play football," says Brown, packing that last word with emphasis -- has had a major impact on the form and reputation of his strikers, but the midfield has been key. Stuart Holden and Fabrice Muamba are commanding an area of the pitch in which Bolton players are better known for watching the ball arc over their heads.
Both are excellent tacklers -- no one made more tackles in the Premier League in the weekend that Holden did against Tottenham, and both feature near the top of the tackles won stats. It's invaluable protection for defenders Gary Cahill and Zat Knight, and both can pick out a simple, timely pass to turn defense into offense. The manager's penchant for wingers (he signed Petrov in the summer, has one of Bolton's most consistent performers in Lee and is gradually coaxing similar form from Matthew Taylor) ensures there are usually options available.
Coyle's philosophy is straightforward: make sure each player knows how well he does what he does best, and ask him to keep doing it. He believes everybody should work hard (he gets by on six hours sleep every night, and watches every match he can find), but expects them to have a smile on their faces while they're at it. He joins in training and bagged a goal and an assist in a recent friendly. He wants his players to be comfortable enough to express themselves on the pitch.
It's no coincidence that Coyle is overseeing Bolton's most entertaining season since 1996-97, when it galloped to the Championship title, 18 points and 24 goals clear of second-placed Barnsley. For all his faults, Megson signed some good players (including 12 of the squad versus Newcastle); Coyle is getting the best out of them with an infectious confidence that also helped convince Manchester City and Arsenal to loan out talents like Vladimir Weiss and Jack Wilshere, where once trod journeymen such as Southampton's Grzegorz Rasiak. No wonder they're queuing up to praise him.
"The manager has given me confidence in my own ability," Holden, Coyle's first signing, recently told BBC Manchester. "I'm enjoying my football."
"He is a great coach who I really enjoy working with," Elmander said, drawing a day-and-night contrast with Megson. "As soon as he came to the club I started to play well."
"We have everything in place now," said a beaming Davies, once thought the epitome of Allardyce's somewhat rudimentary approach but credited with greater flair in Coyle's system. "The belief is starting to creep in among the players. The manager is doing a fantastic job ... there's a great togetherness."
That extends to the crowd, too, which has dwindled in size in recent years but has grown louder and louder as this season progresses. It may not sound like a big deal, but the roar from the stands can't have hurt as 10-man Bolton surged back from 2-0 down to hold Birmingham 2-2 early in the season. And it's a reciprocal process: "Everything that's happening: results, performances..." says club historian Simon Marland, "the team can't do more to get people back into the ground."
"It's nice to have people talking about Bolton like this," adds Marland, who has documented the club's history since it was founded, in 1874. Bolton hasn't attracted such chatter since the 1950s, when it beat Manchester United to win the FA Cup, and finished fourth in the league. "But we don't want it to be a flash in the pan. We're not getting carried away."
The fly in the ointment is Bolton's financial situation, with debts recently set at £93 million ($147 million -- up from £64 million/$101 million last year). In the last five years, the club has slipped from operating at a small profit to losses of £35 million ($55 million). Gates have fallen while the wage bill has risen by more than 80 percent. Chairman Phil Gartside has moved to ease fears by suggesting that a handful of players whose contracts are up in the summer will be released, making significant savings on wages.
Lee this week signed a new contract that will take him to 2013, and fans are hoping that Elmander, currently negotiating, will do the same, no matter what the wage bill. Most of Bolton's debt is owed to owner Eddie Davis, who's made no moves to call more than pre-agreed repayments. Coyle says he feels under no pressure to sell players he doesn't want to lose, and has been assured that money will be available if he wants to buy in January.
No one at the club has pretended that large offers for certain players will be ignored, knowing that a $24-30 million bid for, say, Cahill (linked with Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United, to name a few) would make a noticeable dent in that debt. It's against this background that Coyle has called breathless talk about Europe "fanciful."
Europe may well turn out to be a place or two more than Bolton can sustain over a long season that hasn't yet reached the halfway point. Should Blackpool's visit tomorrow (what an open match that promises to be!), or any of the next handful of fixtures go against Bolton, the table will again urge caution. But Coyle and his team deserve credit for playing the kind of soccer that encourages, rather than forbids, such daydreams.