Gary Megson will have been delighted with Bolton Wanderer’s away draw against Fulham, and not only because of the valuable point gained on the trip to the capital. Perhaps equally as satisfying for Megson personally will have been the chance to escape the taunts of his own fans.
Seemingly under pressure from the moment he arrived at the Reebok Stadium, Megson has been showered with chants of “you don’t know what you’re doing” as his team have won just once at home. Currently, the Trotters sit 18th, two points behind 17th placed West Ham but with a game in hand. They are well and truly in a relegation scrap, but that has been the case more often than not in recent years. Under Sam Allardyce, Bolton managed consecutive top-half finishes, but they were the exception, not the rule.
It is safe to say Megson was neither the fan’s nor the board’s first choice to replace Sammy Lee in October 2007. Megson was at least fourth on Wanderer’s wish list, behind Steve Bruce, Chris Coleman and Graeme Souness. But when Souness ruled himself out of contention, and Bruce and Coleman were denied the opportunity to speak to Bolton by their then employers, it was Megson who got the call, despite having been with Leicester City for only a matter of weeks. Souness was even interviewed for the position, but distanced himself from the role shortly after the meeting took place. After a protracted wrangle over compensation for Megson, the Foxes allowed their boss to move to Bolton.
Megson was not greeted as the saviour when he took the Bolton job. Instead, his appointment was met with protests and cries of “sack the board” during a UEFA Cup tie with Braga, before Megson had even officially taken control. Doubts over a manager’s ability or a chairman’s judgement are commonplace, but it is rare for a managerial appointment to be met with such hostility – even Tottenham fans gave former Arsenal boss George Graham a warmer welcome than the one Megson received. And with Bolton bottom of the Premier League when Megson took over, it appeared the ex-West Brom manager would have to be an improvement on the man he replaced, Sammy Lee.
‘Little Sam’ stepped into the boss’ chair when ‘Big Sam’ resigned, having been appointed as assistant manager by Allardyce in June 2005. Lee led Bolton for 14 games, 11 in the league, and won only once, leaving Wanderers with five points when he was sacked. From there, Megson took his new charges to 16th by the end of the season, despite losing Nicolas Anelka in January and not replacing him until the summer. Megson also guided Bolton to the last 16 of the UEFA Cup, the best showing in Europe in the club’s history.
Despite the negative reaction to his appointment, Megson proved to be a shrewd choice as he kept Bolton in the Premier League. The Greater Manchester side again retained their top-flight status a year later, but the fans showed no sign of warming to their manager and this season, the feelings towards Megson have gone from thinly-veiled uncertainty to outright loathing. The criticism has not been aimed at the dull, unimaginative football usually on display, but rather Megson’s public persona.
The personality of the manager is vital. It sets the tone for the club, and Allardyce was confident and brash, refusing to be undone by any slights, perceived or otherwise. Megson gives an air of insecurity, weariness and resignation, and that leads to restless fans and uninspired players. Allardyce was proud of his Bolton side, the one that he created and was the symbol of, and had guided to previously unseen heights. Megson, on the other hand, constantly appears to be struggling to keep his head above water, swimming against a tide of criticism that some feel he does not deserve. But while the reaction to his appointment may have been unfair, Megson has done little to win Bolton fans over to his cause. After Allardyce left, they were looking for another charismatic leader, but what they got was a functional, competent manager and nothing more.
During his time at Bolton, Allardyce personified the club in a way that few managers are capable of. His tactics may not have appealed to everyone and his bloated self-confidence and constant siege mentality may have grated at times, but he was exactly what Bolton needed. Allardyce took Bolton from what is now the Championship into the upper reaches of the Premier League and he did it his way, regardless of what anyone else thought. His methods got the best out of limited players like Kevin Davies, and dragged another season or two out of the creaking limbs of Ivan Campo, Gary Speed and Youri Djorkaeff.
A former Bolton player, Allardyce tapped into the mentality of the area. For years in the shadow of Manchester, Wanderers gave the people of Bolton an identity on the national stage and watching the men in white upset the big boys from Old Trafford on more than one occasion was cathartic for them. Allardyce inspired Bolton’s followers to aim higher than they had before, to believe anything was possible under his management. The greatest asset Allardyce brought to Bolton was Allardyce himself.
But now, under Megson, every press conference does nothing but lower expectations. Megson is an experienced manager and has been in relegation dogfights before, and has shown he has what it takes to keep Bolton in the Premier League. But that is not enough – Bolton’s previous success came with Allardyce as the standard bearer, leading his men into battle with the football establishment who looked down their noses at Wanderers. Megson is not the rallying point Bolton need, and never will be. While the results are adequate, Megson’s undoing may be that he lacks the magnetism of the most successful of his predecessors. Ultimately, what will cost Megson his job is that he is not Sam Allardyce.