The Red Rose County (Part 2) – The Lion of Vienna

26 01 2011

Having woken from a good night’s sleep, as promised by Lenny, I set off for a full day of Rwanda presentations. During the morning I was at Astley St Stephen, on the outskirts of Manchester, a C of E school involved in a global partnership with Nyabitare, one of my VSO schools.  

The afternoon was spent at the Valley Community School, Bolton, a state of the art building in a deprived area of town, sitting in the shadow of Warburtons factory where they’ve been baking ‘bread wi’ nowt taken out’ since 1876.

The two contrasting schools are linked in a local community cohesion project. The children at both schools were a delight; alert, interested and responsive, and their teachers were welcoming and appreciative.

With a satisfying day of work completed I didn’t have far to travel for the second football league ground on my red rose tour, the home of Bolton Wanderers FC…

Eleven years ago the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) shelled out an astonishing £1.9m at Sotheby’s (a record price at auction for any modern British painting) to secure a 1953 work by LS Lowry, Going To The Match.  

This iconic oil painting captures, for posterity, the atmosphere surrounding the game as a crowd of fans make their way to the then Bolton Wanderers’ ground, Burnden Park.      

PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor, a former Bolton player with a degree in economics, said at the time, “I would have liked it for lot less than that, but it is the football picture…It represents the heart and soul of the game – the anticipation of the crowds going to the match.”

My only previous visit to Bolton had been for the Boxing Day match of 1976 when the Wanderers, or the Trotters as they were more often known then, took on Forest in a top of the table 2nd division clash. A huge bank holiday crowd was treated to an entertaining 1-1 draw.

Forest took the lead through a Peter Withe header with Neil Whatmore grabbing an equaliser for the hosts.

Bolton always struck me as a place where football was played in black and white, as seen on the front cover of the 34-year-old match programme!

In flicking through its pages I notice that Sam Allardyce turned out in the heart of Wanderers defence on that day and the Warburtons (Club President & Chairman) were celebrating the ‘baking of good bread and cakes in Bolton for 100 years.’

Big Sam, of course enjoyed a long playing career, and a successful spell as manager with Bolton. More recently he had been managing near neighbours and local Premiership rivals, Blackburn Rovers, who controversially sacked him, despite their comfortable mid table position, due to his over dependence on negative tactics!    

Forest were promoted to the old 1st Division at the end of the ‘76/’77 season but Bolton had to wait a further year for their elevation to the top league.

When Forest next returned to Burnden Park, on 16th December 1978, they were the reigning 1st division champions and it was to be a red-letter day – as demonstrated by this celebratory first day cover signed by the late great Nat Lofthouse (more of him later).   

In winning the game 1-0, with a goal from Jinking Johnny Robbo (John Robertson), Forest set a new Football League record of 42 consecutive games (in effect a whole season) unbeaten!    

The Wanderers vacated their beloved but decrepit Burnden in 1997, moving out-of-town to the newly built Reebok stadium, which is where I was headed on Monday evening for the visit of current Premier League champions, Chelsea.  

I must say I was mightily impressed by the Reebok. I’ve been to quite a few of the new wave grounds including those at Coventry, Leicester, Swansea and Southampton, but in my opinion this is head and shoulders above all of them, in terms of architecture, atmosphere, accessibility and amenities.  

The next best, that I have visited, is the City of Manchester Stadium, which was originally built for the 2002 Commonwealth Games.    

As circumstance would have it, Monday’s game was the first at the Reebok since the death of Bolton legend Nathaniel ‘Nat’ Lofthouse OBE (27.8.25 – 15.1.11). Nat was a one club man, scoring an incredible 255 goals in 452 appearances. His goal ratio for England is an even more impressive 30 goals in 33 games!

The floral tributes, scarves, shirts and pennants skirting the outside of stadium were a sight to behold, as were the messages of remembrance penned by so many. They spoke of Nat as : loyal, a legend, a hero, a gentleman, modest, a role model, unassuming and a true man of the people.  

Nat is rightly revered as both player and man, and here was an outpouring of praise that few, if any, modern-day players could contemplate. There were many references to the nickname by which he became known across the football world, The Lion of Vienna.

He earned that title in 1952, for a typically battling performance leading the England line against a highly rated Austrian team. England won 3-2 with Lofthouse scoring twice. On his way to the second goal he was reportedly, elbowed in the face, tackled from behind and finally brought to the ground by the goalkeeper.

The match programme carried an in-depth tribute to Nat’s life and career. I was interested to read that, like my Dad, he was a Bevin Boy during the war.

The Bevin Boys (named after the former Labour politician, Ernest Bevin, who devised the scheme)  performed vital but largely unrecognised service in the mines from 1943-48.

They constituted 10% of conscripted 18-25 year olds and it wasn’t until as recently as 2007 that their wartime work was recognised, with the award of a veteran’s badge. I’ll be the very proud owner of my Dad’s one day.      

The Lofthouse legend will live on. The present day Bolton mascot is Lofty the Lion; and I was sitting, pitch side, in a stand that bears Nat’s name.

Before the game Bolton and Chelsea fans, as one, enthusiastically applauded flickering black and white footage of the great man in his pomp. During the minute silence, prior to kick off, one might have heard a pin drop – and quite right too.   

It was a pity, that on such a night, the Wanderers couldn’t deliver the performance or result that the occasion demanded. For the opening ten minutes they briefly threatened, surging forward on a tidal wave of emotion, urged on by a wall of sound.

Then, with eleven minutes gone Didier Drogba won the ball 30 yards out and within the blink of an eye unleashed a bullet of a shot that flew beyond the despairing dive of goalkeeper, Jussi Jaaskelainen, before dipping sharply below the bar and rippling the back of the net.

It was a moment of sublime skill allied to power, the like of which I’ve not seen in live action for a very long time. It, alone, was worth the entrance fee.  

Drogba is immense, combining great technique with huge strength. It is difficult not to draw comparisons with Nat Lofthouse. As a player, Drogba, (who frequently kisses the lion on his Chelsea badge) may well be his modern-day equivalent but in terms of sportsmanship, and as a role model he wouldn’t be worthy to tie Nat’s bootlaces. Not many would.

Drogba’s moment of magic opened the way for further goals, at regular intervals, from Malouda, just before half-time, followed by Bolton old boy Anelka (who thankfully refrained from indulgent goal scoring celebrations) and finally Ramires. There could have been more as the home side visibly wilted and heads dropped.

It wasn’t how Bolton players or fans would have wanted to mark the passing of a legend.

To quote one of the many tributes: The Lion Sleeps Tonight – RIP.  

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One response

26 01 2011
Another Phil

Ee by gum lad, trip was a good ‘un then.
SIPs RIP from 1/4
Short innings!!

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