I've not been to watch Bolton Wanderers since the end of the 2006 season, after watching Nicky Hunt hoof the ball aimlessly into touch. Outraged at his hopelessness, something snapped. Over 20 years of support ended right there as anger towards the greed of modern football coursed through me. I've since been wooed by another, FC United of Manchester, and the leaving of the perma-tanned Premiership for the charms of non-League football has been like dumping Jordan for Diane Keaton. I love it and I'm never going back.
However, as Owen Coyle's boys have slunk to the bottom of the pile I've felt genuine pangs of sadness at their plight, and this has reminded me of the great times we spent together, and of the greatest goal I ever saw.
I loved John McGinlay. No-one could lift my spirits like the mischievous Scot, as he stalked the pitch, his shirt hanging scruffily over his baggy shorts, clutching the cuffs of his sleeves like a school kid waiting for his mum to call him in for tea. He'd come to English professional football late, he was 25, and perhaps this was the reason for the drive and determination that made him such a cult hero at Bolton in the 1990s. In the 96/97 season, he spearheaded a partnership with Nathan Blake that would see Bolton win promotion under the management of Colin Todd.
Bolton's main rivals that year were Wolverhampton Wanderers and McGinlay had been a thorn in their side for years. A couple of seasons back he'd scored a late winner to knock Wolves out of the play-off semi-final - after starting a mass brawl - and in this particular season he'd already scored a wonderful goal at Molineux. If the Wolves players weren't sick of him, the fans certainly were and their most hateful chants came rolling off the terraces each time he touched the ball.
I loved John McGinlay. No-one could lift my spirits like the mischievous Scot, as he stalked the pitch, his shirt hanging scruffily over his baggy shorts, clutching the cuffs of his sleeves like a school kid waiting for his mum to call him in for tea.
By the January both clubs were clawing at the top of the division and the game between them, at Burnden Park on Saturday the eighteenth, was crucial. It was a day thick with latent, grey clouds and steam bellowed from the mouths of the fans walking down Burnden Way. We had to get there early to secure our place on the terrace and, by the time the teams came out to warm up, we'd already been singing for nearly forty-five minutes. Away to our right, packed into the Normid supermarket end like fans at a Buster Bloodvessel gig, were the Wolves fans.
As the players came out it quickly became obvious that Super John wasn't on the pitch. We stopped singing and counted. He wasn't there. As the teams went back down the tunnel we could see the faces of the Midlands fans turned towards us, grinning. Their nemesis wasn't playing and our spirits dropped. But then, when the pitch was empty and just a few minutes before kick-off, our hero, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, sauntered out, turned to the Wolves fans, grinned and waved. Here indeed was Johnny. The place went mental as “Walking in McGinlay Wonderland” rang round the old ground, and the Black Cat fans started pulling on the fences with the anger of outraged gorillas trying to escape from a zoo.
In the first 10 minutes of the match a huge fight broke out amongst the players. It was amazing no-one was sent off, which made the tension in the stands as taught as the elastic on a pair of Margaret Thatcher's knickers. We sang and screamed and then, mid-way through the first half, the ball was played from midfield out to the left where our left back, Bryan Small, was pounding up the wing. With a surprising deftness, he crossed first time and McGinlay, like he'd been fired from a mortar, rose and planted a header perfectly into the bottom right hand corner of the net.
I lost sight of the pitch. I was battered by a phalanx of uncontrolled elbows and the man next to me, a perfect stranger, kissed and hugged me. I didn't know humans could shout as loudly as they did in the few seconds after the net rippled. Eighteen thousand people, as one, began singing “Super, Super John..” and it seemed only a matter of time before Elvis walked onto the pitch and Shergar did a lap of honour.
Wolves never recovered from that moment and not long into the second-half, Keith Curle ballooned the ball into his own net. Their spirit was broken and Nathan Blake finished the game off with a fine third towards the end. The greatest goal I ever saw? It was one of the greatest moments of my life.
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