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From 20th to promotion: How Bolton fell in love with the team they never saw

Bolton celebrate promotion with their fans
(Image credit: PA Images)

The time was 1.15am outside the University of Bolton Stadium, and a topless Eoin Doyle was twirling his shirt above his head, in the middle of hundreds of jubilant supporters.

Bolton Wanderers’ top scorer had spent the previous few minutes dancing in the windows of the stadium hotel, continuing his celebrations by going up and down in the glass lift overlooking the car park, where a large number of fans had gathered.

Soon, the whole squad sprinted outside, and the party really started. Defender Harry Brockbank was still in his kit, despite automatic promotion being secured fully eight hours earlier, at the other end of the country, in a match the 22-year-old didn’t even feature in. Boss Ian Evatt led players and supporters in song.

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Bolton fans had waited a long time for a night like Saturday night. Finally, after a year of closed stadiums, they were meeting a team they’d never been able to watch, not even for a solitary match. And finally, after years of misery, a moment of delirium had arrived to lift the gloom.

In February, Bolton sat 20th in League Two, destined for the lowest finish of their long history. On Saturday, incredibly, they were celebrating their ascent to League One, without even the need for the play-offs. Turnarounds like that just don’t happen in football.

Eoin Doyle

(Image credit: PA Images)

There was a time not so long ago when Bolton Wanderers must have been the hardest club to support in English football. After the highs of four consecutive top eight finishes in the Premier League during the Noughties, plus two seasons in the UEFA Cup, the past 10 years had been pretty much unrelenting doom.

The club’s exit from the top flight was followed by financial problems that lingered on for the best part of five years, leading to protests against deeply unpopular owner Ken Anderson, then administration and the very real threat of liquidation, all while Bolton plummeted down two more divisions in successive seasons.

Last season they finished bottom of League One, with just 14 points before the campaign was halted early. They’d been forced to begin the season with a team of teenagers, as a takeover deal dragged on.

For only the second time in their long history, Bolton found themselves in the fourth tier for 2020/21, but there was optimism. This would be the first full campaign under new owners Football Ventures, led by Sharon Brittan and lifelong fan Mike James, who had already shown promising signs of trying to do things in the right way, without any of the never-ending financial disputes that defined the Anderson era.

This would be the first full campaign without cash problems. Finally, supporting Bolton Wanderers would just be about football again. Evatt was recruited as manager after leading Barrow back to the Football League for the first time in 48 years.

Fans responded by buying season tickets in droves last summer - around 8,000 were sold, an impressive number considering the level the club were playing at, and the uncertainty about exactly when supporters would be allowed back into the stadium.

As it turned out, the answer was not at all. The Trotters played 27 home games in all competitions during 2020/21, and every single one of them had to be played behind closed doors. When crowds were briefly allowed in some parts of the country midway through the season, they remained forbidden in Bolton because of higher coronavirus rates in the area.

Ian Evatt

(Image credit: PA Images)

Since his arrival as boss in July, Evatt has still not had the chance to stride into the middle of the playing surface at the University of Bolton Stadium and greet the fans, as is tradition with new appointments. The same has been true of the players - of those who have featured in the charge to promotion in the final three months of the season, only Brockbank represented the club last season.

Understandably deemed necessary following the decline of recent years, the squad has been through a major overhaul since Bolton last played a home game in front of their own fans in February 2020.

Unable to attend matches, supporters watched games on iFollow in big numbers instead. The club were said to have the fifth highest number of subscribers in the whole of the EFL.

Figures have not been widely released, but numbers published by Barrow in February provided an insight - for their respective away matches against the Cumbrian side, Bolton sold almost 40 times more iFollow passes than promotion rivals Salford, at 2,108 compared to just 54.

Bolton fans at Crawley

(Image credit: PA Images)

That number presumably didn’t include the two Bolton supporters who still turned up for that Tuesday night fixture at Barrow anyway, perching on stepladders to watch the match over a wall. More turned up on a hillside overlooking the Trotters’ match at Forest Green.

Bolton did play in front of a crowd of nearly 2,000 at Cheltenham in December - it was officially supposed to be home fans only, but pockets of away supporters leapt up in celebration when Ryan Delaney struck a 90th-minute winner. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Despite that groundswell of support, promotion seemed impossible on February 8, with Bolton 20th in the table, after a number of the club’s summer signings proved unsuccessful.

Teams just aren’t supposed to win promotion after sitting fifth bottom in February. Sure, Roy Keane’s Sunderland famously came from bottom of the league to win the Championship in 2006/07, but they’d climbed above 20th by mid-September. The same was true of Reading, who came from 23rd to win the second tier in 2011/12.

Iain Dowie’s Crystal Palace left it later in 2003/04, but even they’d ascended past 20th by the end of December, before rocketing up the table to finish sixth and reach the Premier League via the play-offs.

Crystal Palace

(Image credit: PA Images)

Bolton haven’t even needed the play-offs, winning 16, drawing three and losing three of their final 22 matches, conceding only 13 goals and amassing 51 points - compared to only 28 from their first 24 fixtures.

The mid-season recruitment of Kieran Lee, Declan John, MJ Williams and Dapo Afolayan transformed the team. Had the league begun on February 8, they would have won the title at a canter, finishing 12 points clear of everyone apart from Cheltenham.

For the first time in years, Bolton were suddenly winning football matches and fans were starting to fall back in love with their club, albeit via their computer screens. Appreciation and encouragement could only be offered via social media, rather than inside the stadium itself, although they got a little closer during the run-in.

Ahead of a crucial six-pointer at Morecambe, a large number of Bolton fans gathered outside the Mazuma Stadium to welcome the team bus. After the Trotters won 1-0, police kept supporters away from the stadium itself, but Evatt led his players up a hill to applaud them, from 25 yards away.

Bolton fans against Exeter

(Image credit: PA Images)

Promotion could have been secured in the penultimate game at home to Exeter, when an estimated 2,000 turned up outside the University of Bolton Stadium - setting off smoke bombs and firecrackers to celebrate their team taking the lead.

When Exeter came back to win, things weren’t quite so jubilant - fans with pent-up energy suddenly had nothing to celebrate, and a small number forced open a door and invaded a stadium they’d been shut out of for 14 months.

Their club’s fate would be decided in the final game of the season - at Crawley, fully 250 miles away. Even that distance didn’t deter a group of supporters, who bedecked fences outside the stadium with Bolton flags, then waited to see if their team could finish the job.

Evatt’s side could - producing their biggest win of the season when it mattered most, triumphing 4-1 thanks to goals from Antoni Sarcevic, Afolayan, Doyle and Lloyd Isgrove, with a commanding performance that suggested they might be ready to make their mark on League One, too.

Dapo Afolayan

(Image credit: PA Images)

Their manager won’t be easing up - when Crawley bagged a consolation with a minute left, Evatt was irked enough to forcefully instruct his players ‘Do your jobs, be professional!’, even though the chances of Crawley scoring three in injury time were about as high as a space rocket crashing down on to the pitch and forcing the game to be abandoned.

Needless to say, neither happened. Having climbed from 20th in early February, Bolton had secured automatic promotion. “This has never been done - we’ve created history,” Evatt told FFT after the final whistle, as he assessed the turnaround of all turnarounds.

“The players deserve all the credit they’re going to get for this, because they’ve been absolutely outstanding. You see the top teams go on relentless runs of wins, but lower down the pyramid it’s more difficult to do because you encounter different stadiums, different surfaces, different styles.”

It was a view echoed by captain and man of the match Sarcevic, who had previously been promoted from the fourth tier with Plymouth and Fleetwood.

“I support Man City, and they can go on runs because they’ve got a multi-million pound squad, but in League Two it’s unheard of,” the midfielder said - insisting that, even when they were 20th, they still had a belief that they could somehow reach League One.

Bolton celebrate promotion

(Image credit: PA Images)

“I’m not just saying it now because we’re promoted, but there was. There was a belief that this league was there for the taking, and we’ve proven that. It just shows the character and the quality in this team. Hopefully there’s more to come. We want to make sure this club gets back to where it belongs.”

The unity displayed between players, manager and owners during the post-match celebrations suggests they may have half a chance - particularly with the fans right behind them, too. The travelling supporters who’d gathered beside the team bus were given a welcome surprise within minutes of the final whistle, as the entire team darted out of the stadium to greet them, prompting joyous scenes.

Hours later, as the squad arrived back at the University of Bolton Stadium, hundreds more fans were able to join in the fun, with the shirt-twirling Doyle and the rest of the players. They were moments that have never been seen outside the stadium before, and may never be seen again - moments unique to 2021, after a year of separation, and a decade of turmoil.

Not far from the Nat Lofthouse statue, fans had already placed a banner. ‘I can see clearly now the rain has gone,’ it said.

Finally for Bolton Wanderers, the clouds have parted. Finally, the misery is over.

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