So, Blackburn Rovers and Bolton Wanderers were promoted to the Premier League together in 2001, both stuck around for an unbroken 11 years before going down together last season, and now in the space of a couple of weeks they have both parted company with their manager.
It appears the two clubs, separated by about 10 miles of A666 (at least that was the case until Bolton complicated matters by moving out of town to Horwich), have a lot in common, although you would be hard-pressed to find similarities between the two managers in question, Steve Kean and Owen Coyle, beyond the fact that they both hail from Glasgow.
Kean was never a popular choice as Blackburn manager, appeared an inexplicable appointment from day one and faced almost constant hostility from supporters as a result, yet survived the relegation many had deemed inevitable only to be cut when results in the Championship were showing signs of promise. Coyle was viewed as a miracle worker from the start, after his notable achievement in taking Burnley into the Premier League, and, though he went from God to Judas in a matter of days in east Lancashire following his decision to bale out of Turf Moor halfway through the season, the Bolton faithful were pretty sure they were getting a good thing following the turbulent reign of Sammy Lee and then Gary Megson.
So it proved, with Coyle steering them out of the bottom three to the relative comfort of a 14th-place finish in his first half-season at the club, then flirting with the top eight for most of his first full season as well as taking Bolton to an FA Cup semi-final against Stoke. With a final against Manchester City or Manchester United in prospect, most Bolton fans travelled to Wembley in good spirits, for Stoke were considered beatable opponents. No pushovers, granted, but not the sort of quality opposition that necessarily spelled the end of a Cup run or ruled out dreams of returning to Wembley for the final itself.
Coyle himself was a mixture of his usual uber-confidence and the little boy whose dreams had come true that week. I know because I went to see him, for an interview that went out on the morning of the match and which subsequently saw me offer an apology, for it seemed to have worked like the kiss of death. Bolton were hammered 5-0 at Wembley, the sort of tonking they were unaccustomed to taking in the league, and their fans travelled back north in stunned, shattered silence. Not a superstitious man, Coyle waved away my half-joking reference the following season to my part in the great Cup disappointment, with a terse: "Don't be so daft, it's water under the bridge now. What matters are the results we get in the future."
Indeed. What cost Coyle his job were the results Bolton got in the future, and you don't have to be superstitious to notice that everything leading up to the 5-0 thrashing by Stoke was more or less hunky dory, and everything after it was increasingly, alarmingly unpredictable. There were a couple of things going on away from the pitch that could not have helped Bolton's concentration, most obviously the events surrounding Fabrice Muamba's collapse on the pitch at Spurs last season and before that the long-term injury picked up by Stuart Holden, but in terms of results on paper and league positions affected by those results, the Wembley nightmare clearly stands out as a watershed in the Coyle-Bolton story. After that nothing was quite the same, and the confidence and organisation the manager had so carefully injected into his players began to leak away.
According to seasoned Bolton watchers, that was particularly true of the defence. Never Bolton's strongest suit under Coyle, the back four struggled to recover composure and conviction following Stokes's highlighting of a weakness, a situation not helped by the more or less open secret that Gary Cahill was on his way out of the club. "We've been playing some great stuff going forward," one season-ticket holder says. "Even now we can play some nice football, but the defence has always been suspect, in any given game we are always likely to concede a goal or two, and if you look at the record since the Wembley defeat things have gone from bad to worse. One or two of Coyle's signings haven't worked out, some of his team selections are hard to understand and he often sends out sides that are set up to attack rather than stop the opposition playing, but if you had to name one principal failing it is that he doesn't appear to know how to set up a defence or stop leaking goals.
"Despite some terrible results there has been no open revolt at the Reebok, because Coyle is clearly a decent bloke with his heart in the right place, but there has been an awful lot of murmuring these past few weeks. When we lost at home to Palace the general feeling was that he didn't know how to turn the situation around and was living on borrowed time. It looks like losing at Millwall was the final straw, and I can't say I'm surprised. We played them in the Cup last year and beat them ridiculously easily. Losing on Saturday just shows how far we have fallen."
Considering Coyle was being linked with Liverpool at the height of his popularity the manager has fallen quite a distance too. One imagines such an enthusiastic and experienced training ground operator will be swiftly back at some level in the game, though managers who chiefly work through confidence and motivation tend to find it difficult when that confidence takes a knock. Similarly if word gets out that your teams are fragile at the back – think Kevin Keegan at Newcastle – opponents will redouble their attacking efforts and play on the weakness. No wonder Bolton are being linked with Mick McCarthy, who may never have been referred to as God in any of his previous managerial incarnations but can be relied upon to sort out a defence.
Reebok romantics would prefer the club to take a punt on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and that may be an inspired choice if he is willing to do it, though when you have just been relegated and are sitting 18th in the Championship table after parting with your manager you have to think hard about taking a risk. Alan Gowling, the former Bolton forward turned BBC radio pundit, strongly believes the club should appoint Solskjaer – possibly before Blackburn beat them to it – though Gowling also believes Coyle should have been sacked midway through last season to give a new manager the chance to keep the team up. Never mind that Coyle scarcely deserved such a fate, or that he was most likely dealing with the Muamba situation at the time, hindsight will always be easier than foresight.