“We got absolutely battered. Ali Al-Habsi ended up with cramp,” says former Bolton midfielder Gavin McCann as he recalls his side’s famous 2-2 draw away at Bayern Munich in 2007.
Following the Sam Allardyce era with Jay-Jay Okocha as the team’s talisman, the Trotters had moved away from their group of maverick talents picked up from all over the globe to become a more steady and supposedly reliable outfit by the start of the 2007-08 season.
But Allardyce’s move to Newcastle sent the club into a tailspin they struggled to recover from, starting with Sammy Lee’s ill-fated spell as manager which lasted just six months before he was replaced by Gary Megson.
Within two weeks of Megson taking charge at the end of October, he was travelling to Germany to face Bayern Munich in the UEFA Cup group stage, a game Wanderers looked certain to lose – and by a heavy margin – having won just one of their opening nine league fixtures.
“It was a turbulent time with some changes with the management,” midfielder Stelios Giannakopoulos told The Set Pieces.
“It was a great game to go and play against one of the biggest clubs in the world in Bayern Munich, especially away from home in a wonderful stadium. It was a great experience for all the lads…some of the guys, especially the young players, were new to this.”
Bolton were under little pressure to secure a result, but Bayern needed to prove they were still a dominant force as they slummed it in Europe’s secondary competition.
“We had nothing to lose. We just had to turn up and play at one of the biggest stadiums in Europe, so we just got on with it,” says McCann.
In an unexpected turn of events, goals from Ricardo Gardner and Kevin Davies, either side of a brace from Lukas Podolski, earned Bolton a surprise point at the Allianz Arena. It was enough to instill belief in a beleaguered side and galvanise a fightback in the Premier League.
Bolton fielded an unfashionable line-up, including eminently forgettable defensive duo Gerald Cid and Lubomir Michalik, who came up against Podolski, Miroslav Klose, Franck Ribery and Bastian Schweinsteiger. But Megson had a plan to help Wanderers stifle their illustrious opponents.
“The plan was to always go out there and try to not concede. We approached every game with a clean sheet mentality that was there throughout Big Sam, Sammy Lee and Gary Megson as well. It was a must if we wanted to take something out of the game,” explains Giannakopoulos.
Still, Megson was forced to experiment to an extent, with McCann switching from centre-midfield to right-back due to a lack of options in the squad that travelled to Germany.
McCann’s only other experience of playing at full-back came as a youngster at Everton. Facing Ribery was going to be a tough test.
“Megson came up to me in the hotel. I said, ‘You want me to play full-back, don’t you?’ and he went ‘yeah’. That was the night before.
“Ribery ripped my arse out of me for the first two minutes, which was lucky as no one had sat in their seats. I just did enough not to play there again. I’d played there at senior level for Everton for half a game when I was younger, then I was thrown in against Bayern. I just got on with it.”
Bolton stood toe-to-toe with Bayern, even if it was a severe test of their resilience in a game that could have ended in a landslide victory for the hosts.
“You could tell we were never afraid of Bayern Munich. We looked them in the eyes, we never kept ourselves back to play anti-football – we tried to play our game, to play to our strengths and the final score showed we were never afraid of them.
“I think that at the end of the day that if you go out there, away at Bayern Munich, and you manage to score twice in the Allianz Arena, of course you deserve the result. I think that we fully deserved it.”
Marcell Jansen, who was playing in Bayern’s defence, remembers his side should have won the game, but acknowledged that Bolton gave it everything to collect a point.
“It was a big fight. This game once again proved why it was always fascinating for me to play against English teams,” Jansen told The Set Pieces. “Bolton Wanderers were a bit lucky I think. But playing a match like they did, that needs character.”
Bolton progressed out of the group and would go on to beat Atletico Madrid in the knockout stages before losing to Sporting Lisbon. McCann believes his side should have made the final that year, something he still regrets.
“It’s just a shame we couldn’t get to the final. If we’d had a few more players for the Lisbon game away, who knows? That’s the disappointing bit.”
Although their UEFA Cup adventure ended at the round of 16, Bolton’s hard-fought draw in Munich kickstarted their domestic recovery. They won three of their next six matches in the Premier League, including a 1-0 victory over Manchester United, and eventually finished 16th to put a dismal start to the campaign behind them.
“Reflecting on the performances in the following games, there’s no question the result helped us improve. Results like this boost your psychology and your morale, and you go to play against other teams with more confidence,” Giannakopoulos recalls.
There were great celebrations in Munich after Davies’ late equaliser, but the result was quickly forgotten by McCann: “It was just a draw. I didn’t get too excited.”
Despite that famous night and the Premier League survival it generated, a decade of decline followed for Bolton, with the club now struggling at the bottom of the Championship.
Memories such as the ones made in Munich offer hope that the club can one day return.
“I am proud that I was part of that team,” says Giannakopoulos.