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Sep 9, 2009

Megson losing the popularity contest

It has been said that Gary Megson's problem is simple and impossible to resolve: that he is not Sam Allardyce. Actually his problems are threefold: he has presided over three successive league defeats at the start of the campaign, he isn't Bolton's most successful manager since Bill Ridding and he is Gary Megson.

It is almost two years since his appointment at the Reebok Stadium came among the least auspicious opinion polls ever conducted. Among 699 Wanderers fans questioned by the Bolton News, the town's major newspaper, just 1.7% said Megson was their choice to succeed the sacked Sammy Lee as manager. It was the sort of approval rating to give hope to beleaguered politicians everywhere.

Nor can it be dismissed as ancient history now. He has twice preserved Bolton's Premier League status yet Wanderers' 1-0 defeat at Hull brought a chorus of: "We want Megson out." In the Carling Cup win at Tranmere, the manager responded to supporters' requests to wave to them, only to be booed. The values he advocates - of hard work, teamwork and, if they don't succeed, still more work - are admirable but hardly exciting and, by Premier League standards, he is not particularly charismatic.

He is, in short, a manager with no power base. There is no groundswell of goodwill towards him. Validation and vindication comes purely through results. And Bolton, in many respects, are unlucky not to have achieved them. They were dominant in the first hour at Hull, before losing 1-0, and led 2-1 against Liverpool before Sean Davis' unfortunate dismissal. In both matches, the final half-hour constituted a time to forget, but it is far from inconceivable Bolton could have six points by now.

But it is a situation where others may receive the benefit of the doubt. As Megson has said: "There's ourselves and not a great deal of assistance from anywhere else." Assistant manager Chris Evans suggested last week that Megson does not get the credit he deserves; it is a feeling that pervades the club. It may build a siege mentality, but it also brings a hint of paranoia.

There are several complaints emanating from the Reebok: that the media focus is negative; that Bolton's style of football is unfairly maligned; that they operate with a small budget and a slender squad and they don't receive recognition for surviving in those circumstances; and that Wanderers' players, unlike some of their counterparts elsewhere, are too honest to con referees.

The last may be the most contentious. Lucas Leiva was culpable for encouraging Alan Wiley to send off Davis in the Liverpool game, but the accusation he slowed down to induce a foul had rather less credibility. However, a perception of unfair treatment can fester and blind managers to legitimate decisions.

That, too, can relate to coverage of the club. Megson said: "I just think that for some reason Bolton seem to be viewed entirely differently from the other 19 teams in the Premier League." His grievance, before the Liverpool game, was that: "We were described as: 'Bolton, who haven't won a game all season'; they didn't mention that the season is only nine days old and we've only played two games." Statistics, however, also show that Bolton haven't won in their last 10 league matches; they lend themselves to selective interpretation.

Then there is the question of the game plan. Megson himself admitted Bolton produced some "dour, grinding performances" last season and spoke of trying to implement a more adventurous approach in the current campaign. It is not merely the casual observers who aren't convinced he has, however: last Saturday, Rafa Benitez referred to Bolton's set-piece threat, and it is widely recognised in the game.

Moreover, of the six summer signings, four - Davis, Zat Knight, Paul Robinson and Sam Ricketts - are more solid than spectacular; the theory is that the last was recruited for his long throw. The other two are Ivan Klasnic, the Croatian striker, and Chung-Yong Lee, the Korean who the club have conceded will require time to adjust to the English game.

Megson's record in the transfer market may provide a microcosm of his entire reign: generally respectable but often criticised. The recruitment of Gary Cahill and Matt Taylor has certainly been justified and both, along with Kevin Davies, have produced the best form of their career under Megson's guidance, hinting at his coaching prowess. Yet the most conspicuous addition is, not surprisingly, the biggest buy and he is Johan Elmander, a striker without a goal in 2009.

It is one reason why Bolton aren't regarded as an attacking team and one why his purchaser's judgment is questioned with such regularity. "Johan and myself are intrinsically linked and I've told him that," said the manager recently, the first acceptance that Elmander's continuing profligacy could have repercussions for him. A glaring second-minute miss at Hull was perhaps the most obvious example: had the Swede scored, it is unlikely that, later that same afternoon, supporters would have demanded Megson's sacking.

But a combination of high expectations generated by the four successive top-eight finishes Allardyce oversaw and a dreary reality meant Megson's was a difficult task even before the slow start to this season. His team face Portsmouth, the other side who are yet to take a point, on Saturday. If Bolton lose at Fratton Park, Megson would be advised not to listen to the supporters, let alone wave at them.

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