Everton visit Bolton this weekend for a hotly anticipated FA Cup tie, as Wanderers look to take their second Premier League scalp in the competition. Steven Thompson recalls the Toffees' first visit to the Reebok Stadium back in 1997.
Bolton Wanderers 0 Everton 0
FA Carling Premiership
Date: September 1, 1997
Everton had the honour of being Wanderers' first opponents at the Reebok Stadium and it is a game that will live long in the memory - for all the wrong reasons.
Wanderers were back in the Premiership, having gone up from Division One as champions under Colin Todd, and were enjoying a decent start to the season. Their first three games had come away, as the finishing touches were made to the new ground, and Whites had taken four points, winning at Southampton on the opening day, before a Peter Beardsley-inspired second half performance saw Wanderers come back from two goals down at Coventry to draw 2-2. They then lost narrowly to newly promoted Barnsley midweek at Oakwell, less than a week before Bolton's curtain call at their new home.
I remember the Everton fixture well. I was a programme seller at the Reebok back then, and after flogging my 400 £4 souvenir programmes, five minutes after kick off, I went to take up my free seat, about four rows up, on the lower tier, behind the goal. It would prove to be one of the best seats in the house for the controversy that lay ahead. Played under the impressive new floodlights on Monday, September 1, it came just a day after the tragic death of Princess Diana, an event which had seen Sunday's scheduled Liverpool-Newcastle game postponed.
A nervy start from Wanderers saw Everton take the early initiative and it was the then Toffees skipper, the late Gary Speed, who spurned a glorious chance in the opening 10 minutes, lashing over the bar after the ball broke to him in the box. Slowly but surely however, Whites found their way into the game, and 30 minutes into the game, Nathan Blake, who had scored three times already that season, ran onto a through ball from Per Frandsen, controlled on his chest, but lost the one-on-one battle with veteran keeper Neville Southall.
Wanderers finished the opening period the stronger team and came out in the second half all guns blazing. A frantic nine minutes then culminated in an incident that has since been immortalised into Wanderers folklore.
A looping Gerry Taggart header got the better of Southall, who flapped under pressure from Blake, and the ball dropped a couple of inches the right side of the goal line, before being desperately cleared by Terry Phelan.
It was a goal. Surely. I saw it. With both eyes. To misquote John McEnroe, the ball was over the line! YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS! I saw it, Terry Phelan saw it, Nathan Blake saw it, and 23,130 other people saw it. But apparently, referee Stephen Lodge did not.
The sense of injustice was compounded 34 games later when Wanderers were relegated. Everton survived that season, only just, finishing one point above Whites. The argument being that, had the goal stood, Wanderers would have won, and subsequently finished two points above the Blues. To be honest, it is not an argument I stand by. There are too many ifs and buts. With 35 minutes remaining, are you telling me Wanderers would have held onto that fragile lead? That doesn't sound like the Wanderers I know and love.
In fact, the ref could have ruled out any controversy by, instead of waving play on, simply awarding a foul against Blake. No one would be talking about this incident 15 years on, had he given a free kick to Everton. Read this extract, for example, from The Telegraph's match report. "Bolton claimed with some justification that the ball crossed the line before Terry Phelan hacked it clear," wrote their reporter. "But Everton could argue, with equal conviction, that their goalkeeper was unfairly impeded."
Blake missed again, seconds later, from the resulting corner, and the misery was not over for Whites. I may be in the minority here, but I was surprised to read, researching this piece, that this was the same game in which left back, Robbie Elliot, Bolton's then record signing, suffered a horrific double fracture to his right leg. The incident happened just seven minutes after the Taggart ‘goal'.
Blake missed one more chance 15 minutes from time, before being replaced by John McGinlay. The game petered out and Wanderers fans had to wait another 90 minutes and more for the first goal at the Reebok, an Alan Thompson penalty in a 1-1 draw versus Spurs, following an honourable 0-0 stalemate with Manchester United. Those were the days, eh?
Steven Thompson is a writer and journalist and previously wrote a Wanderers column for The Bolton News. He has developed a new iPhone app - BWFC NEWS - which contains the latest Whites news from around the web, including from the Lion of Vienna Suite. You can download the app here.