Speaking as a Sheffield Wednesday fan, I feel an expert on the topic of fallen established Premier League clubs. The catalyst is always unforeseen success in the form of a cup run or a higher than expected league finish followed by a spending splurge on players who are either not good enough or come without the right attitude. It may always seem a bit of a gamble at the time but the years of unhappiness, relegation scraps, players coming and going through a revolving door of emergency loans and the feeling of being trapped in a time vortex, ironically, never end.
Then one day a new owner comes along with promises that they’ll all live happily ever after. Except they don’t because a team’s fanbase then feels that promotion or at least challenging for the playoffs is their right, nay more than that, it is their destiny!
This fuels impatience in the stands creates unrest in the boardroom and more often than not results in the sacking of managers faster than you can say, Billy Davies.
Things were already looked bad for Bolton Wanderers after they were relegated from the Premier League under Owen Coyle in 2012 but had got much worse by December 2015. The club had amassed £172.9 million worth of debt while enduring a 17-game winless run and they were staring a double whammy of administration and relegation in the face.
They eventually dropped to League One, but since then the club’s debt has been reduced to less than £30 million and they secured their route back to the Championship with a four-point cushion over Scunthorpe United in third place. Both Bolton and Sheffield United, another club looking to push on from hard times, have earned promotion where they will join the many other ex-Premier League teams all with their own self-entitled view on why only they have the real big club mentality needed to gain access to the elite land of endless TV money.
For many fans going through hard times and trying to remember the good, putting on a pair of rose-tinted glasses to reminisce may vary in terms of quantity and quality. For me, the days of Waddle, Hirst, Sheridan and Nilsson in the early 90’s will always be the pinnacle of Sheffield Wednesday’s modern history with fond memories of Benito Carbone, Des Walker, Andy Booth and even the brief period of bliss when Paolo Di Canio was scoring goals for fun getting an admirable mention. For this, I count myself lucky to have those memories, albeit the early 90’s are fairly foggy.
To be a Bolton fan and remember the likes of Okocha, Hierro, Campo, Diouf, Stelios and Davies while Sam Allardyce watched on bespectacled and moustached like the thinking woman’s Tom Selleck, would have made it hard not to take the rose-tinted glasses off.
To really put it into perspective, back in the 2004/05 season Bolton Wanderers had three Champions League winners (two of them with more than one winner's medal), a World Cup winner, two European Championship winners, an Olympic gold medallist and a two-time winner of the African Player of the Year. Imagine then how that team could have performed if they had a bonafide, world class superstar amidst their ranks? Someone who had won every honour at international and domestic level as well as a wealth of fans who see you as a god from such footballing meccas as the Camp Nou and the San Siro.
I am referring to the great Rivaldo. It’s hard to imagine now that the team who defeated a plucky Shrewsbury Town earlier this season thanks to an opening goal assisted by a long throw-in were courting the Ballon d’Or winner from March 2004 till around July of the same year when Sam Allardyce informed the media “Rivaldo won’t be joining us”.
As early as April of that year many major newspapers, including The Telegraph, were reporting that a deal was done for a free transfer to be completed earning Rivaldo a million a year. However, the Brazilian’s indecision and courting of other clubs, namely Celtic, which was seen as a tactic to increase his wages, led to the deal being called off. At the time it was suggested the 32-year-old wouldn’t be much of a miss. Another ageing superstar, Youri Djorkaeff, was winning games almost single-handedly for the Whites and his displays even spawned chants from the Bolton fans of “We don’t need Rivaldo” after two goals either side of a Duncan Ferguson equaliser at Goodison Park, earned the Frenchmen plenty of appreciation.
So when Djorkaeff did the unthinkable and joined local rivals Blackburn Rovers the void in which Rivaldo would have filled was felt even harder. Instead of the Brazilian, Real Madrid legend, Fernando Hierro joined to bolster the defensive ranks whilst occasionally playing in a deep lying midfielder role, too. Liverpool wildcard El Hadji Diouf was also signed later in August to add some creativity.
To this day the question remains; how would Bolton’s progress have been different had they managed to sign a member of the ‘Three R’s’? Bolton were already punching above their weight having finished 8th in the league at the end of the 03/04 season and reached the final of the League Cup only to be defeated by another club hoping former heavyweight players such as Gaizka Mendieta and Boudewijn Zenden – scorer of the decisive goal that day in Cardiff.
With Djorkaeff leaving that summer, Sam Allardyce, had he signed Rivaldo, would have had a midfield roster of Jay-Jay Okocha, Ivan Campo, Fernando Hierro, Stelios Giannakopoulos, Gary Speed and Kevin Nolan to sit alongside the Brazilian. With Kevin Davies causing havoc up front with his intelligent hold-up play and threat in the air, those midfielders would have had a feeding frenzy making late runs into the box to see who could have pulled off the most outrageous long-range effort. Then there’s the decision to make on free kick duty.
The effect of Rivaldo on the pitch would have depended greatly upon which of his many sides the Bolton fans may have seen the most. There was the old favourite; ‘the genius’ that was at its peak when scoring a ludicrously good hat-trick against Valencia in 2001 to secure Champions League football for Barcelona, ‘the cheat’ that screamed and rolled in agony, face in clenched hands after being hit on the knee by a football in the 2002 World Cup, ‘the sensitive one’ who considered quitting the national team after being booed during a Copa America loss against Columbia in 1999 or perhaps ‘the cult hero’ who was born in 2004, coincidentally, and would go on to make his name in Greece at Olympiakos and AEK Athens.
We may even have been introduced to the playful side of Rivaldo, famously last seen wearing a prosthetic face and wig during a training session held at Barcelona HQ. His trickery and quick feet lead many attendees to wonder who this old guy was until he revealed himself at the end of the session to rapturous applause.
Which side Rivaldo would have chosen to expose would have depended greatly on his relationship with Sam Allardyce and the Bolton Wanderers fans. In the past, Rivaldo had never been afraid of confrontation with managers as Louis Van Gaal and Carlo Ancelotti found out.
Looking back at those wonderful years at the Reebok it is hard to find a bad word said about Bolton from the big names players enjoying their Indian summer. Fernando Hierro was given an emotional and glorious send-off in his last game for the club with sentiment pouring onto the pitch from the stands as he called time on a truly outstanding career.
Stelios told The Guardian in 2015 that his house in Greece is full of memories of his time in Bolton and this is coming from a man who won Euro 2004 with Greece in a tournament victory of almost Leicester City style proportions. Ivan Campo, the crowd favourite that Allardyce reinvented into a defensive midfielder wrote in an open letter to the Bolton fans “I cherish with all my heart the times you chanted my name”.
Based on all this love for Bolton it would appear safe to say that the environment was perfect for Rivaldo to relax after years at the top where success wasn’t appreciated but expected. The next question is then whether the then 32-year-old still had the quality and professionalism to make his mark in England.
In reality, Rivaldo ended up in the Greek Super League for the start of the 2004/05 season. Known for its total domination by Olympiakos, whom he played for before joining rivals AEK Athens in 2007. In 136 appearances in the Super League Rivaldo scored 56 goals and assisted 34 whilst playing in a multitude of positions in the attacking half of the field.
He was also a player who could blossom and enjoy playing a game with other truly remarkable players like he did with Brazil, Barcelona and AC Milan, and single-handedly drag a team to titles and knockout stages of elite competitions like he did whilst at Olympiakos, and to a lesser extent AEK Athens.
Back in the north west of England and the 2004-05 season was the start of a golden period in Bolton’s long history. A run in the FA Cup was ended by Arsenal but that was overshadowed by the team finishing 6th and qualifying for the UEFA Cup for the first time. The following season, Bolton held Sevilla to a draw and were eventually knocked out of Europe by Marseille. That year they finished 8th, but a 7th place finish in the 2006-07 season meant another adventure in Europe beckoned. This time they held Bayern Munich to a draw at the Allianz Arena and knocked Atletico Madrid out in the round of 32.
Whether Rivaldo’s presence would have improved this overperformance is hard to say. Perhaps with Rivaldo, they may have won some silverware or gone further in Europe. On the contrary, what if his inability to adapt to the rough and tumble of the Premier League had cost Bolton priceless points in the quest for European football taking the sheen off some truly outstanding work both on and off the field. Sadly, it’s something we’ll never know.
One thing is for sure, with Rivaldo on board, Bolton would have been globally labelled on the footballing map and the Brazilian superstar may have left more than just great memories at the Reebok.
Whether or not Rivaldo’s time in the north-west would have had any effect on the financial troubles that followed is impossible to say. Regardless, during the times when hope is all but lost and everyone else around you seems to be moving on whilst you are still static, those memories of yesteryear obtained from placing the old and dusty rose-tinted glasses back over your eyes are more valuable than ever. For that reason alone, I am sure Rivaldo would have shone in the white of Bolton Wanderers FC.
By Tom Johnson.