FA Cup: Bolton Wanderers, Nat Lofthouse and the Magic of the World's Oldest Cup
Bolton Wanderers have never been a fashionable club in the modern age of football.
Many think of them as one of the tough-to-beat sides that inhabit the middle of the premier league. Even with the arrival of Owen Coyle, who has made them a more football-oriented side, they are still often deemed a "kick and rush" team.
This perception owes much to the success they enjoyed under former manager Sam Allardyce, who gave Bolton one of their successful spells since the days of Nat Lofthouse and the famous win over Manchester United at Wembley in the 1958 FA Cup final.
Allardyce typically builds his teams on a platform of strong defense and no-nonsense at the back, with the ball frequently bypassing the midfield initially, before being laid back by a strong center/forward type via a knock downs or lay off, then worked out wide and then crossed on an angle to the far post or edge of the area.
Things have changed considerably since Coyle took over. Bolton fought off the relegation that threatened them and have proceeded this season to become one of the better footballing units in the league this season, as their current ranking at seventh reflects.
Their play has been outstanding at times and they have given out a few footballing lessons over the season to sides that would have easily brushed them aside a few years ago. The linking play in their midfield is often beautifully wrought, as ball retention and movement have become the ingredients for assaults on the opposition goal, rather than the aerial bombardments that characterized the reign of Allardyce.
Chung-Yong Lee's late goal gave Bolton the victory over Birmingham City this past weekend, the "Blue Dragon" heading home just before the close of play to end Birmingham's rather fanciful idea's of a cup double.
Bolton also keeps its hopes of someone stepping up to emulate the late great Nathaniel Lofthouse, the former Bolton Wanderers star and one club man, who was capped 33 times by England scoring 30 goals. Lofthouse passed away in January this year, and his death was marked with ceremony preceding the visit of Chelsea to Bolton's Reebok stadium.
In the 1958 final, Lofthouse stood against the wave of sympathy that went out to the devastated Manchester United club after the disaster in Munich earlier that year, and scored twice to take the cup. The second proved a controversially awarded score, and Lofthouse later said that he had fouled United keeper Harry Gregg when the goal was given. It remained the high point for Bolton since the 1920s, though.
Bolton have Stoke City to play in the Semi-final, which is no easy fixture, and despite the weight of history being behind them, they may still not quite make Wembley. In a quirk of fate, they are up against one of the former clubs of Sir Stanley Matthews, a.k.a. "The wizard of dribble," who, though with Blackpool at the time, famously ruined Bolton's dreams in the FA Cup final of 1953, in a final that ever since has been known as "The Matthews final."
Matthews enjoyed two stints with Stoke City in a stellar career, in which he was knighted while still playing, a feat that has not been eclipsed.
The history of the FA Cup, the world's oldest sporting competition, keeps the magic very much alive, despite the cynicism that pervades much of the commentary on the cup in the last few years. The magic is very much a part of the closing stages when semi-final time arrives. On the day of the final itself, when the trophy is presented, it can indeed be the stuff dreams are made of.
Bolton have a little bit of history to spur them on, and they will need it if they are to overcome the opponents that lie in wait in the next two matches. The chance for it to again be a Bolton Vs. Manchester United final still lies ahead, and if that match up materializes, perhaps it could well be Bolton's year, and if it is, the magic of the world's oldest cup could well hold the world spellbound once again.
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