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Aug 6, 2007

Goodbye Big Sam, hello Little Sammy

The task of filling the void vacated by Sam Allardyce will be a big job, both literally and figuratively for Sammy Lee.

Few people expected Allardyce to stay at Bolton Wanderers beyond the end of the 2006/07 season, but plenty of observers were surprised that he departed with just two games of the campaign left.

His exit left the way open for Lee, Allardyce's right-hand-man, to step up and assume the position Big Sam had held since 1999. Lee took charge for the last two games of the season; neither of which the Trotters won.

Allardyce subsequently took over at perennial underachievers Newcastle United and by quirk of the fixture computer will return to the Reebok Stadium on the very first day of the new season as the Magpies take on the club where Allardyce made his name as a manager.

Though neither would admit it, both men would have felt more than a little uncomfortable by their first fixture of the new Premiership season, but perhaps more so Lee, who would surely have preferred that the inevitable comparisons between himself and his predecessor occurred later in the season.

Lee comes into the role with vast experience as a coach but none as a manager. He began his coaching role in 1993 when former Liverpool team-mate Graeme Souness invited him to join his backroom staff at Anfield.

Lee continued in his role under both the Roy Evans and Gerrard Houllier regimes and by 2001 was so well regarded that Sven Goran Eriksson invited Lee to join the England set-up. After three years splitting his time between England and Liverpool Lee joined the England full-time ahead of Euro 2004.

Only a year later and Allardyce offered Lee the opportunity to return to part-time league action with Bolton. In August 2006 the England Under-21 manager's job was offered to Lee but he turned it down and called time on his England role to dedicate his full attention to Bolton.

The problem Lee will face is that Bolton reached a pinnacle under Allardyce, who after nine years had honed the club to his exact needs and had led it to its best-ever league finishes and taken it into Europe for the first time in its history.

Enter Lee, short on managerial experience and now the figurehead of a club that has become used to over-achievement under the guidance of a unique character like Allardyce. One hopes Lee will be given the time to mould the club into his own, otherwise the inevitable downturn in results could cost him his job.

Although Lee is the new man in charge he has been involved with the club for three years, so is hardly an unknown quantity to those around him, and there is further continuity in the form of ever-green central midfielder Gary Speed, who will now be able to impart his considerable experience as part of the club's coaching staff.

It will be interesting to see if Bolton's style of play alters under Lee. One of the key characteristics of Bolton under Allardyce was their aggressive, pressing approach. Many criticised it, perhaps unfairly, nevertheless it got results and was always employed in a considered and measured fashion.

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One curse disguised as blessing which Lee has inherited is a UEFA Cup campaign which the board will no doubt see as a potential money-spinner but that Lee will regard as an energy-sapping diversion from the main event of the Premier League.

The club's squad is not without talent, but it does lack genuine depth and a European campaign can only increase the risk of injury and fatigue thereby stretching the club's playing staff.

Last season Bolton managed just 47 goals, five less than accrued by Reading, the team directly below them in the final league standings. Nicolas Anelka was Bolton's main goal threat, with 11 strikes to his name in the 2006/07 season, next behind the Frenchman were Kevin Davies and Gary Speed with eight goals apiece.

The problem for Bolton is that Anelka has already told Lee he wants Champions League football and has been told if a top four club comes in for him then he can move. Remove Anelka from the equation and all of a sudden Bolton look very light in the striker department.

Midfield is surely the club's strongest area, with a raft of combative players who are not without touch and vision. Speed, although now in the twilight of his career can be relied upon to weigh-in with a few goals and club captain Kevin Nolan similarly knows where the goal is and is a vital player thanks to his energetic brand of box-to-box play.

The addition of promising youngster Danny Guthrie and Gavin McCann from Aston Villa augments a squad that can already call upon the muscular Abdoulaye Faye, the talented Ricardo Gardner and the promising Joey O'Brien. However, Lee will have to do without Greek winger Stelios Giannakopoulos, who will miss the start of the season after undergoing a hernia operation.

Marshalling the defence ahead of him, seemingly for the final season with Bolton, will be towering keeper Jussi Jaaskelainan.

The Finnish number one is perhaps the most highly regarded keeper in the league outside the top four, but after over 10-years at Bolton he has turned down the offer of a new contract and plans to make a decision as to his future at the end of the season.

Another blow came in pre-season with Israeli international Tal Ben Haim signing for Chelsea. Ben Haim will leave a gaping hole in centre of Bolton's defence. His departure is expected to lead to Lee installing the versatile Faye to fill in where once stood Ben Haim, and extra responsibility will fall to the ageing Ivan Campo in his role protecting the defence from his position as a ball-playing holding midfielder.

While much players like Abdoulaye Meite, Gerald Cid and on another new recruit from Villa, Jlloyd Samue will need to be at the top of their game.

There are grounds for optimism for Bolton; they have a wonderful stadium, great fans, a supportive board and a squad not without talent. The problem is that Bolton's is a comparatively small squad that will be tested in Europe as well as in the domestic arena.

Hopeful thoughts should be tempered by the reality that Bolton will surely struggle to retain their place as a genuine contender for European places, such is the shadow cast by Big Sam.