Misfortune major player in Coyle downfall
As a sign of how things had fallen apart at Bolton, it was as good as any. Midway through the second half of a home defeat against Crystal Palace ten days ago, and with no one anywhere near him, full-back Tyrone Mears tripped over his own feet trying to deliver a cross. Owen Coyle might have realised in that moment that his own fall was not too far away.
Bolton were awful that day, rarely managing to string more than a couple of passes together. But they still had a hard luck story to tell in defeat, losing 1-0 to a dubious penalty in the closing stages. The sorry tale of Coyle's exit from the Reebok Stadium is as much one of misfortune as misadventure.
The descent has been remarkable. On Saturday, November 20, 2010, Bolton thrashed Newcastle 5-1 and sat, for 24 hours, in fourth place in the Premier League. By the time Coyle was asked to clear his desk, they were 18th in the second tier. His team had fallen from the heights of the Champions League places to the lower reaches of the Championship in next to no time.
With hindsight, it is easy to pick out the crushing FA Cup semi-final defeat against Stoke in April 2011 as a turning point in Coyle's reign. Attempting to reach their first FA Cup final since 1958, Bolton were thumped 5-0 at Wembley, and their league form in the closing weeks of the season nosedived, partly as a hangover from that disappointment, partly because the squad were physically shattered. The loss of influential midfielder Stuart Holden to a serious knee injury did not help either.
To anyone watching Bolton lose their final five league games of the 2010-11 season, it was obvious that the players had nothing more to give. A team who had spent virtually the entire campaign in the Premier League top eight had slumped to finish 14th. A summer of refreshing and rebuilding was what Coyle needed.
Instead, he lost a series of key players. Daniel Sturridge, whose goals had been vital for Bolton during the second half of the season, returned to Chelsea at the end of his loan spell. Johan Elmander, an erratic talent who had found scoring form during his final season at the Reebok, refused a new contract and left for Galatasaray. Holden's attempt to return suffered a major setback that caused him to miss the entire league season. Fellow midfielder Lee Chung-Yong broke his leg in pre-season, and barely figured. Centre-back Gary Cahill was unsettled by Chelsea's interest, and eventually left in January.
Coyle attempted to rebuild his squad, but too many of his signings fell flat. Gael Kakuta, Dedryck Boyata, Darren Pratley, Tuncay and David Ngog did not make the impressions hoped for. Mears broke his leg in pre-season. In the meantime, veteran goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen lost his form and, ultimately, his place. Up front, Coyle found himself over-relying on another 30-something in Kevin Davies. Wanderers started last season as they had finished the one before, losing 13 of their opening 16 Premier League games.
Yet the spirit still shone through. Faced with a crucial match at relegation rivals Blackburn just before last Christmas, they won 2-1. When Everton keeper Tim Howard scored with a freak wind-assisted clearance at Goodison Park in January, Bolton came back to claim victory. Liverpool were brushed aside at the Reebok Stadium. They looked as if they could escape. But with Cahill gone, Coyle struggled to establish a settled defence. Too many errors at the back would cost him dear.
At times, Coyle faced extraordinary difficulty. The distress of seeing Fabrice Muamba suffer a cardiac arrest on the pitch during an FA Cup quarter-final at Tottenham in March must have affected him hugely. Coyle deserves great credit for the dignity he showed in handling the aftermath as Muamba, who was ultimately forced to retire, recovered in hospital.
With a difficult season behind him, Coyle had the chance to start afresh in the Championship, but a poor start appeared to shatter the confidence of his players. Performances were unconvincing, results were unacceptable. Yet still there was bad luck. Bolton conceded four penalties in Coyle's final five games. When they were finally awarded one, in what turned out to be the manager's farewell match at Millwall, Chris Eagles missed it. A last-minute defeat followed; it was one poor result too many.
Coyle will receive little sympathy in Burnley, having walked away from Turf Moor midway through their only Premier League campaign to date in order to take the Bolton job in January 2010. But few others will be happy to see him out of work today. And it shouldn't be forgotten that Coyle was the man who guided Burnley to the top flight. He deserves the chance to resurrect his managerial career.