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Coyle's Bolton shows signs of life


So much has been written to mark Sir Alex Ferguson's 25th anniversary as Manchester United manager that if he reaches 30 years in the job in 2016 we may have only awkward silence left with which to greet the big day. "Well done Sir Alex. Um ... please see 2011." My contribution to the effort to preserve a few superlatives for the occasion will be to throw Ferguson an admiring nod (he's not done a bad job, all told), and focus instead on a club down the road.

Before the weekend, Bolton was the only one of 92 professional clubs in England without a point at home this season, and had conceded so many goals in the first 10 games (27) that the campaign already bore the salty musk of the doomed; when Derby County were relegated bottom of the table a few years ago, having let in a Premier League record 89 goals along the way, they had conceded a mere 26 by bonfire night.

So Sunday's unexpected 5-0 win over Stoke City went down pretty well, especially given that one Stoke fan turned up in a shirt taunting the home supporters over April's 5-0 FA Cup reverse. "BOLTON'S CUP REVENGE" said the Daily Mail, this morning. "A TASTE OF YOUR OWN MEDICINE," reckoned the Daily Mirror.

It's unlikely that many people will consider it true revenge for the hiding Stoke gave Bolton in April's FA Cup semifinal, but the score line does keep things nice and tidy, and if it takes such ringing symmetry to jolt his team in to life, Owen Coyle will happily cry vengeance. Bolton has won six and lost 14 of its 20 competitive matches since the cup defeat; in the 20 games before that, it'd won nine and drawn three (though it's worth noting that in the 20 before that, they'd lost only four; losing to Stoke was a trip when it was already jogging unsteadily down the slope). The margins of some of Bolton's defeats this season reveal the poverty of the performances, even if it has faced five of the top seven. Defeat to Swansea at the end of October put an asterisk beside the tough-start excuse in any case.

Thumping Stoke doesn't change all that in an instant -- Tony Pulis' side has a pretty miserable away record in the Premier League, having won only 10 games of 62 on the road since the start of 2008-09; Kevin Davies has never knowingly allowed Matthew Upson an easy time of it, no matter how little he's troubled other defenders; and the Potters gift-wrapped the first goal -- but the point is rather that Bolton did not lose. If we cannot say that victory answers all of the questions, it is certain that defeat would have posed many more, and with the insistence of a whistling kettle.

Coyle has thanked Bolton's supporters for their backing, avoiding the indignity of a "Coyle out" flyover despite the fact that Wanderers have been further from getting a result in several of their matches than the beleaguered Steve Kean's Blackburn Rovers have been in theirs. (Indeed, the only reason the Bolton manager had to glance skyward is to thank God after Sunday's win: "When I went to mass, the local priest was brilliant and said, 'Let's pray from the Wanderers,' so I knew He was on side as well.")

Had Stoke enjoyed the same hospitality as previous visitors to the Reebok, however, Coyle's abilities would have looked ripe for examination. He is without several performers critical to last season's best moments, including Stuart Holden and Chung-Yong Lee (both out until March), but he wasn't the only manager negotiating the transfer window on a shoestring; if the season were to be undone by the gulf between the first XI and the rest, Coyle would shoulder the responsibility.

Even disregarding Sunday's score line, however, there is enough to suggest that it's not all make-do-and-mend for Bolton. Fabrice Muamba has been used sparingly so far this season, but against Stoke made a more convincing partner than Darren Pratley for Nigel Reo-Coker. Often the pair of them are to pass completion as Michael Bay is to understated filmmaking, but their energy and urgency as they turn over possession are crucial when you're battling back from the bottom -- Wilson Palacios must have watched from the Stoke bench and wondered in what situation he'd finally be asked to step into the middle and do the same.

It doesn't make for the perfect system (Mark Davies in a nominal wide position has the potential to leave Paul Robinson badly exposed at left back), but it gives Bolton a better chance of taking the initiative -- Coyle's players enjoyed more of the ball against Stoke than in any other league game so far this season (there was even some jubilant olé-ing), and upped their shots-on-target figures accordingly. The supply lines to Kevin Davies (who has been a virtual bystander until now) and the lethal-in-the-box Ivan Klasnic improved on this more confident footing, with Chris Eagles evidently enjoying himself -- and doing the kind of running that fans might more often expect from Lee.

There is nothing like a 5-0 result to prompt overstatement, so it was reassuring to hear Coyle says afterward that, "it only moves us up one place", but it was equally gratifying to see him end Joe Riley's league debut a minute early in order to give the crowd a chance to stand and applaud. The young fullback seemed to grasp as well as anyone how much the fans needed to see something to hang their hopes on, showing off a fine sense of anticipation and hinting at a penchant for marauding. He may not be quite ready to force Greta Steinsson in to the reserves, but like David Wheater, he has shown that Bolton can adapt to its circumstances with something better than miserable acceptance. That alone should be welcome news to the 4000+ who couldn't face the Reebok on Sunday.

They don't come much better than Ryan Taylor's effort against Everton on Saturday, a worthy winner even if Newcastle did not so emphatically deserve the same title. Controlling a headed clearance on his chest not far outside the area, he looked up to assess his options and realized in an instant that he wasn't going to be closed down; swinging his right foot through the ball, he sent it spinning up over Tim Howard and in off the underside of the bar.

The doctors who warned Harry Redknapp not to return to work before a month of rest must have seen the second half of Tottenham's 3-1 win over Fulham coming: according to Opta's stats, Martin Jol's team had 24 shots at goal in that 45-minute spell. The law of averages suggested that one would eventually find its way past Brad Friedel, and the laws of justice virtually demanded it, given the strength of Fulham's performance, but sod's law ensured that Spurs went up to the other end in stoppage time and scored with their one second-half shot on target.

Friedel's performance was so impressive -- including a terrific late stop to deny to Clint Dempsey -- that Ali Al-Habsi's outrageously good save from Wolves' Christophe Berra, somehow palming a close-range header over the bar, was relegated to the honorable mentions. The Wigan goalkeeper is running up the down escalator trying to keep his team out of trouble, though, if Hugo Rodallega continues to make a hash of simple chances. In the first half a lovely ball from Franco di Santo floated on to the striker's chest and dropped to his feet, only to find itself jabbed wide of the near post with a toe.

Georgina Turner is a freelance sports writer and co-author of Jumpers for Goalposts: How Football Sold its Soul.