John McGinlay thows a punch in slow motion. “It’s travelling, and you’re thinking ‘no, don’t do that. Don’t, don’t.’” The former Bolton striker is describing the incident that left David Kelly sprawling in a fiery play off semi-final between Bolton Wanderers and Wolves in 1995 at Burnden Park.
Had he been sent off, as expected, there would have been repercussions. Loss of the game perhaps, or suspension from the final. But his initial thought was of manager, Bruce Rioch.
“The first thing I could think of was Bruce. He’ll sack me. Seriously.”
Rioch arrived at Bolton in May 1992 with the club in what is now League One. McGinlay was pleased to rejoin the man he credits with instilling the dedication and self-discipline that took his career to a new level, having played under him at Millwall.
“I’ve everything to thank him for. He put me on the straight and narrow without a doubt,” he says.
“Do you trust me?” asked Rioch, as they discussed the transfer.
“You know I do, “ replied his fellow Scot
“Right I’ll leave it that.”
“How do you mean?”
“Sign this and I promise you if we do ok, this’ll be ripped up within twelve months,” explained Rioch, “because that’s all I can afford at the minute.”
McGinlay signed the contract without looking at it – he’d taken a considerable pay cut. Within ten months, as promised, he had a new deal.
Whilst an inspirational figure, Rioch was distinctly old school and he commanded respect. “Even now, I’ll speak to him. I can’t call him Bruce. I call him Boss. Never called him Bruce. I can’t,” says McGinlay
The manager’s influence extended beyond the training pitch. He took a dim view of midfielder Alan Thompson’s off the field activities, for example.
“Bruce, he’d pull that on Thompson, ’You gotta get married son,’ because he knew Thommo was ducking and diving. And Stubbsy, McAteer, he was like a Dad to them.” Another player also felt the boss’s disapproval.
“Somebody involved with the club died and the whole team had to go to the funeral. We had got there and we were congregating as a team outside of the church. Next minute, Scott Green comes flying in. Just bought a big BMW.
“Rioch never says a word. You could just see him, looking at him. The following morning: ‘Greeny. Office.’ Tore him apart. Greeny, he was living with this girl, had twins and was staying with her mum in this two up two down, yet he’s going out spending fifteen grand on a BMW.
“Rioch went ‘get that car back to the garage this morning. Buy a house!’”
Sometimes, the darker arts were used for motivation. “He used to play mind games with you. He had this thing. You had to be bright and bubbly at all times, even if you weren’t. He’d walk in – ‘morning boss.’ He’d look through you, not say a word. You’d get in the dressing room. ‘What’ve I done, he knows I’ve done something. Oh no, what’ve I done?’
“That’d be his kick up the arse as such. That weekend you’d be out score a goal, a couple of goals. And you think back now, you were just tailing off a bit and that was his way of just getting you going again. He would keep you on your toes all the time.”
Appearances were important too. “You were allowed a day without shaving just a slight little bit of stubble you were allowed that, that was fine. You couldn’t go to a reserve game or a function or turn up at training in jeans. It either had to be a club tracksuit or a pair of trousers and a shirt.
“He’d always give you hints, you know. ‘Had a haircut?’. ‘No.’ That’s telling you, you need a haircut. So you’d get a haircut. If somebody else had tried to do the same as him, it would not have worked.
“We trusted him. Individually we would never have achieved anything near what was achieved if it wasn’t for him.”
Bolton fans know the history. McGinlay stayed on the pitch against Wolves and went on to add another goal to the one he’d already scored. The team was Wembley bound for the second time that year, where Rioch was to deliver his most important team talk.
At half-time the Wanderers were two goals down having been outplayed, with Keith Branagan to thank for saving a penalty. McGinlay recalls what he said to his team mates.
“’Get off the pitch. Don’t walk. Sprint off the pitch.’ If you notice, everybody runs off the pitch. We used go in and police the dressing room ourselves, quickly before the boss came in.“
Once there the inquest began. “It was like, what’s wrong with everybody? Everybody’s like, my legs are heavy, I can’t run. And I’m like wait until he comes in, he’s going to go berserk.
“It seemed like an eternity until he came in. You expect the door to get booted open.” Rioch entered quietly, getting himself a drink before addressing his team.
“’Right fellas,’ and it was the tone of his voice. It wasn’t an angry tone. ‘We’re so lucky to walk off there being two nil down, but I’ll tell you one thing, we’re still in the game. You got to take positives from it, we’re still in the game. We’ve not even started playing. If you’re not in the game simplify your game, receive the ball, have a good touch, pass and move, pass and move, that’s what they’re doing to us and we’re chasing like dogs and can’t get near the ball.
“And his team talk was unbelievable, just basics, but it was the tone, the way he put it across . He calmed everybody down and it was a case of look, we’ve come all this way, we’ve got 40,000 fans out there. What a season we’ve had, it’s been fantastic, what a ride we’ve had, are we going to finish on that? Or are we going to go out there and do ourselves justice? Because at the moment we haven’t done a thing. Let’s get out there and play.”
And play they did. Owen Coyle pulled a goal back from McGinlay’s cross on seventy-five minutes and Fabian De Freitas fired home the equaliser. Bolton commanded the game in extra-time, running out 4-3 winners with further strikes from Mixu Paatelainen and another from De Freitas.
It was the culmination of Rioch’s time with the club and his last game in charge. With his contract expired and a training facility close to the family home he joined Arsenal. The players were unhappy, but there is no condemnation from McGinlay.
“It was Arsenal, one of the biggest clubs in Europe. You can’t deny the man his opportunity. He’d earned the right.”
Bruce Rioch’s achievements as Bolton manager were considerable. Two promotions in three seasons. A League Cup final. Thrilling FA cup victories at Liverpool and Arsenal, both of whom were cup holders at the time, along with further wins over other top flight opposition in Aston Villa and Everton. After the game at Anfield, McGinlay describes how perceptions changed, and of how Rioch understood what a club means to its supporters.
“All of a sudden now, the club is being talked about, everybody’s got a buzz. The fans are queuing for miles for tickets. The players are all out with teapots giving everybody cups of tea because they’re standing in the cold waiting for tickets for cup games. That pulls everybody together. Again that was Bruce. Masterstroke, absolute masterstroke. Pulling everybody together.
“Some of the things he did were just fantastic. The biggest thing was, he gave the club back to the fans.”
Next up: White Hot, Hull and Highbury.
– Richard McCormick