Please note: This feature was originally written on August 20, but we've republished it in light of today's deadline. Plus, it's great work from our resident Trotter.
Wembley. Prenton Park. Two 5-0 defeats, eight years apart. The first was the most torturous day I've ever experienced as a Bolton Wanderers fan. The second should have been worse, but it wasn't. It felt completely inevitable.
On Saturday, Bolton lost 5-0 in League One at Tranmere Rovers, a club who were in non-league just two years ago, and one that Bolton historically regard as bitter rivals. As far as nadirs go, that's right up there. Or, rather, down there.
And yet there was no feeling of shock, no feeling of crushed dreams like there was at Wembley in 2011. Then, Bolton lost 5-0 to Stoke in the semi-finals of the FA Cup. We had hope back then. We had players. We had an owner. We were one game from our first FA Cup final since 1958. We weren't supposed to lose at all, let alone 5-0. It felt like a humiliation.
It was the start of the decline.
There was no feeling of humiliation at Tranmere. In reality, there was no feeling at all any more. Bolton Wanderers lose football games. It's just a thing that happens. For the fourth game in a row, we'd been forced to field a team full of kids. Committed, determined kids, but kids all the same – and exhausted ones at that. What did people expect was going to happen?
When losing 5-0 at Tranmere means so little, it says everything about how bad the last few months have been at Bolton Wanderers. When the club swiftly decide to postpone their midweek match with Doncaster and it doesn't seem surprising any more, it says everything about how farcical the last few months have been.
Since early April, as the club's financial problems worsened, Bolton fans have learned not to rely on the fixture calendar. Every week the same uncertainty, the same questions. Will the next game be on? Do we have 11 players? Does the stadium have a safety certificate? Will the club actually make any tickets available to buy?
On one occasion, a match against Ipswich was in doubt until the morning of the game because of a 'critical IT failure'. Weeks later, a fixture against Brentford was called off because the players were on strike over unpaid wages. Understandably peeved when previous owner Ken Anderson stopped paying them, they'd had their hopes raised when ex-Watford chief Laurence Bassini agreed to buy the club. But the money still didn't arrive.
In a bizarre attempt to resolve the situation hours before the Brentford game, Bassini had spent his Friday evening not in Bolton but in the Sky Sports News studio, holding aloft a Bolton shirt with his name printed on the back. "I've brought the shirt so you know I'm not giving up on you," he told fans. "I'm going to get the game on." (Narrator: he did not get the game on.)
Within weeks, Bassini's takeover appeared to have fallen through, with the EFL insisting that he hadn't shown adequate proof of funds. That, despite his attempts to endear himself to players, which served only to leave them wondering what on earth they were dealing with. "He rang me a few times," David Wheater said. "He was saying he was going to play, he was going to get on the pitch, or sit next to the manager."
All the while, player and staff wages remained unpaid - even the club magician took to Twitter to complain that he hadn't received his money. Players had to drive to Nottingham Forest for the last game of the season in their own cars, because the club couldn't provide a team bus.
By mid-May, administrators had been appointed – problematically, two sets of administrators; one for the club and one for the adjoining hotel, even though the two entities had always been intrinsically linked, and both previously owned by Anderson. Still the players went unpaid, and by the end of June there were only six senior pros remaining. Two of them were goalkeepers.
At around the same time, the Football Ventures consortium were named as preferred bidders for the club – they'd tried to buy it from Anderson months earlier, only for the deal to collapse mid-season. The group have business links to Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason, who is reported to be involved in the project. By the first home game of the season, Another Brick In The Wall was being played over the club's PA system.
By then, plenty more chaos had unfolded. The deal to buy the club couldn't go through until the deal to buy the hotel was also sorted. That was still some weeks away – and still hasn't been finalised. Players still waited for their money in full – pulling out of the entire pre-season fixture list, then initially refusing to board the coach to the opening game of the season at Wycombe. Only reassurances from the prospective new owners on the morning of the game persuaded them to play – minus Josh Magennis, who'd withdrawn, angry that he was being blocked from ripping up his contract and leaving despite not receiving his full wages for months.
With so few senior players left on the books, frustrated boss Phil Parkinson had to supplement the rest of the team with rookies and teenagers. It was farcical, but he had no other choice. The teenagers gave it absolutely everything, and Bolton lost only 2-0. Not long ago, a 2-0 defeat at Wycombe would have been a major embarrassment. Now, it was a virtual triumph.
A miracle happened in the next game, after the farce got worse. Despite not being named preferred bidder by the administrator, Bassini was refusing to give up on buying the club, insisting he'd been offered £25m by David Sullivan to fund the deal – even though Sullivan already owned West Ham. Bassini turned up outside the stadium to meet fans, randomly held talks with the club's former right-back Nicky Hunt, and gave a series of increasingly bizarre interviews – including one where he turned a public park into a makeshift filing cabinet, breaking off midway through a TV interview to rummage through a pile of documents he'd casually left in the middle of a field. After all of that, he filed an injunction and insisted his takeover deal with Anderson was still valid, even though the club had gone into administration in May. In Bassini's view, the club should still be his.
Spooked by those developments which appeared to threaten the Football Ventures takeover, the club's senior players weren't sure whether to play against Coventry City. Parkinson had little option but to plan without them, fielding the youngest team in the club's history: average age 19, average squad number 30. Somehow, those kids fought to a 0-0 draw. It was one of the most remarkable results in Bolton's long history.
That heroic effort took its toll, though. The same youngsters led 2-1 after an hour at Rochdale in the first round of the League Cup, then faded badly to lose 5-2. Then came the 5-0 loss at Tranmere. The postponement of Tuesday's game against Doncaster came as injuries piled up and the club decided that it could not reasonably ask a team of kids to play against adults for the fourth time in 11 days, for their own health and welfare.
Throughout it all this season, fans have stuck by the team remarkably. No criticism, just 90 minutes of vociferous encouragement whatever the score. For all of Bolton's problems, no one could ever blame a bunch of kids giving absolutely everything.
Around 1,700 supporters travelled to Wycombe on the opening day. "Sweet Caroline, good times never seemed so good," fans sung after the final whistle. When Bolton secured promotion in 2017, and miraculously avoided relegation with two last-gasp goals against Nottingham Forest in 2018, it had been sung in joy. This time, it was sung in defiance. Around 9,000 watched the home game against Coventry, despite no season tickets being available, and match tickets only going on sale the day before the game.
Around 2,000 were at Tranmere on Saturday. Bolton lost 5-0, but were given a standing ovation at the final whistle. Perhaps that was the most remarkable moment of all. Amid the biggest crisis that the club has possibly ever faced, a community has decided to stick together. Whatever the outcome from here, these days we're living are historic.
Bolton were founder members of the Football League, and in the Premier League just seven years ago, but the last year has brought nothing but misery. A total of 45 league games, five wins, eight draws and 32 defeats. Just 23 goals scored, 82 conceded. Not a single league goal since April 6.
With a 12-point deduction for going into administration, it still doesn't feel like Bolton are really in League One. We're in a mini-league with Bury, likely to be won by whoever can avoid oblivion. Whether the takeover will go through before the transfer deadline on September 2, no one can be sure right now. If not, Bolton could be stuck with a makeshift line-up until January at least, reliant on kids and free agents, the best of which will be snapped up by then. Heavy defeats will become tiresome and relegation to League Two will become inevitable. Bolton will join Portsmouth, Bradford, Blackpool, Coventry, Oldham and Swindon – other former Premier League clubs who dropped as far as the fourth tier.
The alternative could yet be worse. As the postponement of the Doncaster game proved, fulfilling this season's fixture list is not a given right now. It's been the maddest few months in Bolton Wanderers' 145-year history, and it has to stop. If it doesn't, the nadir will not be a 5-0 loss at Tranmere Rovers. The nadir will be far, far worse.
While you're here, why not take advantage of our brilliant subscribers' offer? Get 5 issues of the world's greatest football magazine for £5 – the game's greatest stories and finest journalism direct to your door for less than a pint in London. Cheers!
Get the best features, fun and footballing frolics straight to your inbox every week.
Thank you for signing up to Four Four Two. You will receive a verification email shortly.
There was a problem. Please refresh the page and try again.