In early January 2010, Owen Coyle took the heavily-criticized decision of leaving Burnley and joining Bolton Wanderers. It was a decision that baffled many across the football world. It was believed to be a ‘like for like’ change, and one wondered if he shed an opportunity for achieving ‘greatness’ with Burnley football club.
It was one thing to be walking out on a club that was on the rise and making waves in the top flight for their attractive brand of football, but to be doing it for a club that had developed a negative reputation for their manner of football and was hardly better placed in the league was indeed questionable at the time.
In little over a year, though, Owen Coyle has proved all critics wrong.
When Coyle jumped ship, the bravery of his decision was a clear indicator of two aspects of his personality,one being that the man had ambition. To reach a top club, he knew he would have to gradually go up the ladder, and Bolton provided an opportunity for him to display his managerial prowess on a consistent basis in the topmost division of English football.
The other consideration was his vision. Coyle clearly had a vision to change things at the Reebok, and do so in a manner that did not compromise on the club’s league position or financial structure.
In little over a year, Owen Coyle has succeeded in bringing about a revolution at the club. The most telling aspect of the revolution is that it didn’t involve a change in players; Coyle had inherited Megson’s squad of players. Apart from buying new players, Gary Megson had done little to change things at the club; he brought in players like Tamir Cohen, Grétar Steinsson, Matthew Taylor and Gary Cahill over one summer.
Megson enhanced his squad by signing Sean Davis, Lee Chung-Yong and Zat Knight, and also made a shrewd signing by loaning-in Ivan Klasnic over another summer. A Bolton record fee was used to sign Johan Elmander, but the Swedish striker did not flourish under the tactics of the English manager. Megson failed at the club and did not address the fundamental issue that was hampering the progress of the club – the football philosophy.
Cue the entrance of former Bolton legend Owen Coyle at the club. Instead of demanding investment for his own squad of players, he came in with an attacking philosophy, an extraordinary enthusiasm and a firm plan to change the world’s negative outlook on the club.
Today, the same players that were busy fighting relegation for almost three seasons have been converted into a set of players aiming for Europe. But this had been done before under Sam Allardyce, so you may wonder what all the fuss is about?
What is refreshing is the manner in which it has been achieved. Owen Coyle’s Bolton have displayed some exemplary passing ability and wonderful flair, and to top all that, a lethality in the final third that had virtually been unknown at this club for a long time. He is been very shrewd in inculcating his own style of play, while simultaneously not totally doing away with Bolton’s traditional work ethos and dependence on Kevin Davies’s strength in the air.
Let’s be clear. The Wanderers still work hard, still harry other teams and are still a major threat in the air, both from set-pieces and open play. Bolton have now added a very real and aesthetic threat on the ground to their increasingly multi-dimensional tactics. Coyle’s is a hybrid strategy, one which the former managers have been scared to use.
Owen Coyle’s style of management has done wonders to the morale of previously frustrated players at the club. Under the new manager, club captain Kevin Davies has earned his first International cap. He could well have earned it years ago, had he not been playing under managers that undermined his skills with the ball at his feet. Kevin Davies is now a doubly-dangerous striker, showing his prowess with the ball on the ground with great consequences.
The player that may have benefited the most from the new manager’s arrival at the club is Johan Elmander. The frustrated Swedish striker went from a flop to a striker who suddenly found his feet in the English top flight. He now features in the list of top goalscorers in the league this season, and scored one of the goals of the season at the Molineux – a goal that not only displayed the immense ability that Megson had seen in signing him, but the confidence that was flowing inside him under the new manager.
The Reebok now plays home to wonderful partnerships all over the pitch, and more importantly, partnerships that are clicking well. Fabrice Muamba and Stuart Holden provide the stability in the middle of the park and are one of the top tacklers in the country. Zat Knight and Gary Cahill have been a formidable backline through the season. With Kevin Davies and Johan Elmander up-front, Bolton are home to one of the most potent strike partnerships in the league this season.
On top of that, Matt Taylor and Lee Chung Yong have been utilizing the width of the pitch with great effect. Previously, Bolton used to by-pass the ability of their midfielders much too often.
After an early season high, Bolton’s good run of form did hit some road-blocks, including a thrashing received at the hands of champions Chelsea. However, Owen Coyle made an intelligent move in signing Chelsea’s Daniel Sturridge on-loan, in an attempt to reignite Bolton’s campaign. Sturridge has scored four goals in four matches since joining Bolton. Coyle had made a similar loan move for Jack Wilshere, last season. Clubs like Arsenal and Chelsea would not have sanctioned such moves with Bolton’s old style of play.
Add to this Klasnic’s return to fitness and hunger to score goals, and Bolton are a team that could realistically aim for Europe. They have scored more goals than the likes of Tottenham and Liverpool in the league, and on the way played some scintillating football, especially in the victories against Newcastle and Spurs.
Bolton are also in the last eight of the FA Cup, and one would have to be brave to bet against the guile of Owen Coyle to deliver the goods.
It’ll be harsh to undermine the era of Sam Allardyce at Bolton. He brought Bolton from the bottom of the championship into the top flight. He is the reason you and I, and the person next to you, is even aware of the existence of this club. However, Big Sam primarily relied on the principles of effectiveness and direct play. This wasn’t always the case, though. Championship Bolton were a wonderful team to watch, but on entering the Premier League, Allardyce adopted a strategy that would be effective in grinding out results against the more powerful teams.
What followed are primarily long-ball tactics and some Wenger-resenting physicality; but more importantly, it became a successful strategy to not only keep Bolton in the top flight, but push them into Europe. But under his tenure, Bolton became the 7th most hated club in English football. The club built a reputation for being stubborn and unattractive, perhaps characteristic of their manager, instead of being lauded for their success.
Burnley were Coyle’s own team and played with a system that encouraged attractive football, while Bolton were stuck in a particular system for years and one wondered whether the players could actually adapt to a new ideology.
This is why Coyle’s success in achieving a u-turn in Bolton’s philosophy is even more remarkable, and also encourages a sly dig at the two managers he succeeded.
From a club that used ‘small budget’, ‘smaller club’ etc. as excuses to play the way they had to in order to grind out results, Coyle has, in such little time, transformed them into playing a hybrid of attractive and effective football with equal success thus far. He is the most promising British manager, who is destined to go even higher in the managerial ladder. He could well turn out to be the biggest catch in English football.
Bigger clubs, take note.