Premier League One-Season Wonders - Stelios

One-Season Wonders is a MatchPint series looking at those players who delivered a single, standout season in the Premier League, how they got there, what happened and why it was never replicated again.

Before Everton, bungs and pints of wine, Sam Allardyce achieved some pretty remarkable feats.

In particular, his Bolton Wanderers team in the early 2000s has gained a legendary reputation, both for the heights they scaled to and the unlikelihood of some of their squad members. ‘Big Sam’ assembled a Galaticos of his own, as the likes of Jay-Jay Okocha, Youri Djorkaeff, Fernando Hierro and Ivan Campo dazzled the crowds of the Reebok Stadium like never before.

At the time it felt like your most audacious Championship Manager save being played out in real life.

Allardyce had a special penchant for a free transfer, using the promise of large wages and his own charismatic persona to draw big names to the North West. Of course, the big pay packet helped but Big Sam was adamant he played his part in these signings.

In especially Brentian form, he told FourFourTwo in 2005 what attracted these stars. “Me, initially. It might sound big-headed, but I’m the salesman, and one of the biggest sales pitches is the Premiership”. Two such Bosman signings were made in the summer of 2003 who would leave an unforgettable mark on Bolton: Kevin Davies and Stylianos "Stelios" Giannakopoulos.

Standing at 5”8, Stelios ticked the box of “diminutive playmaker” and he arrived in Bolton as Greek Footballer of the Year. The previous season he had scored 15 goals that helped him win his seventh consecutive title with Olympiacos. A new challenge in a foreign country beckoned and Stelios swapped the Med for Greater Manchester.

The move did come as a culture shock for Giannakopoulos, particularly in terms of the weather. Speaking to the Independent, he noted the difficulties of adapting to Northern England’s infamously dank climes. “We had lived our whole lives in a warm country and arrived in a place with no sun”, he said. “It is psychological, it is like a depression when you don't see the sun but, when I do, my whole body smiles”. It wasn’t too long, however, before the pint-sized string-puller was leaving smiles on the bodies of many Wanderers fans.

In his first season at the Reebok, Stelios didn’t set the world alight but gave England a glimpse of what he was capable of, chipping in with four goals. His real making as a player came at the Euros in the summer of 2004 as he helped Greece to the most improbable glory. Stelios playing in four out of six games, including starting the final against Portugal.

The Greek midfielder endeared himself further to the Bolton faithful when Giannakopoulos Junior took to the field wearing a Wanderers shirt. “After the semi-final against the Czech Republic my son came running on to the pitch wearing the Bolton kit”, he recalled. “I love Bolton, so I dedicated one part of the victory to them”.

An impressive season followed back in England, as Bolton finished sixth in the League and Stelios contributed seven goals, including an effort against Norwich that Jimmy Bullard would no doubt deem ‘naughty as hell’.

By the 2005/06 season, he was something of an old hand at the club. Aged 31, he might’ve hoped for one more big move in his career, but turned down interest from Liverpool and an offer from Man City to sign a three-year contract and stay at the club. Already off the mark with a goal against Newcastle, he would justify his new contract in spades by producing his finest season in English football.

Like so many fan favourites, Stelios turned up in the games that mattered. And back in the mid-00s, few games were of more note to Trotters than Arsenal, as two polar views of how the game should be played clashed.

This season, not for the first time in his career, Big Sam’s Bolton would frustrate Arsene Wenger’s outfit and Stelios was the instigator. At the Reebok in December, he assisted Abdoulaye Faye for Bolton’s first before turning finisher, slotting past Jens Lehmann to round off a 2-0 victory. A month later, a Stelios bullet header sparked tears all over North London with a 1-0 FA Cup win whilst Bolton also came away with a point in their last appearance at Highbury, extending an unbeaten league run against the Gunners that had lasted since April 2002.

Bolton blogger Chris Manning is nostalgic about Stelios and the era at the club he became synonymous with. “He wasn't particularly quick, didn't have a stepover or bag of tricks in his arsenal but he had a fantastic knack of being in the right place, at the right time when it came to goals”, Chris remembers. “He seemed to score them where and when it mattered too, often in the latter stages of games to help us get the points or to progress in the cup. So good was he that he was linked with City and Liverpool - instead choosing to stay at Bolton and help us as part of one of the most individually talented squads we had.”

2005/06 would prove to be Stelios’ most prolific of his time in England. Aside from tormenting Arsenal, other highlights that year including braces against Everton and West Ham as well as Bolton’s first ever goal in European knock out football.

Indeed, Allardyce’s well-oiled machine briefly even made waves on the continent. Four points taken from the tournament’s next two winners, Sevilla and Zenit St Petersburg, was enough to see them through a tough group that also contained Besiktas in their debut UEFA Cup campaign. In the last 32, Stelios pounced on a Fabien Barthez howler to net the opener in the Stade Vélodrome before Frank Ribery levelled and a Tal Ben Haim O.G. saw them crash agonisingly out to Marseille.

He finished that gilded year with 12 goals to his name and half as many assists – exactly matching a certain Cristiano Ronaldo’s stats for the same season. Two more years at Bolton followed but he was unable to capture quite the same magic as before and was released in the summer of 2008. He joined Hull City on a free transfer, reunited with Allardyce’s former assistant Phil Brown, but would only make three appearances for the Tigers.

In his half a decade in Bolton, he helped the club finish 8th, 6th, 8th, 7th and 16th - a highly commendable run. These days, aged 43, Stelios is back in Greece and working as a firefighter, as if further proof were needed that he was a community man, who continues to put his heart and body on the line. Just as Bolton fans do for him, he holds fond memories of his time at the Reebok.

“I spent five years here and had a great time, not only on the pitch but off it as well”, he told last year. “It’s very emotional thinking that myself and the other lads are a very small piece of history for the club. I am very proud of achieving that.”

Not quite as flashy as Okocha or Djorkaeff, but equally beloved, Stelios remains an important piece of the puzzle in Bolton’s golden Premier League years.

Hugo Greenhalgh
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