Although his managerial career is in its infancy, Kevin Nolan has a great career as a player behind him. Frequently cited as the best player never to win an England cap, he actually holds the record for the most Premier League appearances (401) without being capped. He also has the distinction of being the youngest manager in League Two.
A stalwart of Bolton Wanderers’ modern golden age (i.e. when they somehow managed to run up catastrophic debts of £174 million), Nolan built his reputation as a tough-tackling midfielder with a fine eye for goal. Indeed, Nolan was in at the start of Bolton’s renaissance, beginning his career with the club’s brand new academy and making his first team debut at the age of 17 in 2000. He became a regular almost immediately, making 33 appearances as Bolton won promotion to the Premier League via a 3-0 play-off final win over neighbours Preston in 2000-01.
Life in the Premier League got off to a great start, with Nolan scoring twice as Bolton topped the table with a 5-0 win at Leicester on the opening day. Bolton won the next two as well, but that was as good as it got, falling away to finish just 4 points clear of relegation. A personal highlight came on 20 October when Nolan scored his first Premier League goal in a 2-1 win at Old Trafford. Bolton finished the season with three successive defeats, and started the 2002-03 season with two more. Nolan scored again at Old Trafford in a 1-0 win in September, but the season was to prove another fraught one. Bolton went into the final day of the season out of the relegation places only on goal difference, and needed a 2-1 win over Middlesbrough at the Reebok to keep them up at the expense of West Ham, who could only draw 2-2 at Birmingham. A call-up to the England U21 squad was received in October 2002, although Nolan had to wait until February 2003 for his solitary appearance as a 62nd-minute substitute in a 1-0 defeat to Italy. He has not been involved with England since.
The narrow escape in 2002-03 sparked a run of four successive finishes in the top eight of the Premier League. The 2003-04 season hardly got off to the best of starts, with just one win from the opening ten games, but five successive wins in April and May carried them to 8th, their highest final league placing since 1960. The season also included an appearance in the 2-1 League Cup final defeat to Middlesbrough in February, but Sam Allardyce’s side had established itself in the top flight. The 2004-05 season was even better, with a sixth-place finish guaranteeing qualification for the UEFA Cup for the first time in Bolton’s history. Furthermore, Bolton finished just one solitary win short of a place in the Champions League. The 2005-06 UEFA Cup campaign saw Bolton reach the Round of 32 with wins over Lokomotiv Plovdiv and Zenit Saint Petersburg, with Nolan scoring in both. In the Premier League, another shot at Europe appeared on the cards until the distraction caused by Sam Allardyce’s connection with the vacant England manager’s job created a slump in form to finish eighth.
Nolan started the 2006-07 season as Bolton captain and led his side to UEFA Cup qualification for the second time with a seventh-place finish, one point ahead of Reading. Nolan also picked up the first red card of his career – after almost 300 games – in the local derby win at Blackburn in October. To finish on a statistical negative after such a comparatively good season, Bolton set a new English league record by completing their 68th top flight season without winning the title. The 2007-08 UEFA Cup adventure ended at the knockout stage, although Bolton secured a very creditable 2-2 draw away to Bayern Munich before exiting the competition. League form dropped dramatically, as one win from their opening thirteen games under new manager Sammy Lee left Bolton in the bottom three. As it transpired, they avoided relegation by a point from Reading – the second season in a row that one single point had been decisive over the Royals. Bolton’s bubble had burst, although the arrival of Gary Megson eventually led to a minor revival in 2008-09. Performances generally at the Reebok were not up to the expected standard however, and after criticism from some sections of support, Nolan joined Newcastle for £4 million in January 2009. His departure ended 10 years at the club in which he made 345 appearances in all competitions, scoring 50 goals.
Newcastle were struggling in 16th place in the Premier League, just two points clear of the drop zone, and without a win in seven games. Form did not pick up, and a meagre two wins from their remaining fifteen games saw Alan Shearer’s side relegated to the Championship after a 1-0 defeat at Aston Villa on the final day. Newcastle’s case for survival was not helped when Nolan missed four weeks through suspension following a red card against Everton. In keeping with their traditional yo-yo existence in the Football League, Newcastle bounced back to the Premier League at the first attempt with a record points haul of 102. Nolan’s best ever goals return of 17 in 44 games, including his first hat-trick at Ipswich, made him joint top scorer with his lodger Andy Carroll and earned him the Championship Player of the Year title.