Why Bolton are the hardest club to support in English football
Atletico Madrid had held out for 74 minutes, but they could withstand the pressure no longer. Sent off for spitting, a teenage Sergio Aguero glanced disconsolately across the Reebok Stadium as police tried to usher him down the tunnel. When he finally began his journey back to the dressing room, he heard the roar. El-Hadji Diouf had scored the winner. Bolton Wanderers 1-0 Atletico Madrid.
Back in 2008, Bolton knocked Atletico out of Europe and sat above them in the UEFA rankings. Above Manchester City and PSG, too. In the noughties, a survey claimed that Boltonians were among the happiest people in England.
Football was a big part of the reason why. It's easy to be happy when you're watching Jay-Jay Okocha, Youri Djorkaeff and Nicolas Anelka. Football brought joy to every Bolton fan back then. This season, it's brought ever-increasing misery for months on end.
Kick the Ken
It's a season that's been waiting to happen since Ken Anderson became involved in 2016. A man with limited funds and no historical connection to Bolton Wanderers, any progress was being achieved via brinkmanship.
Promotion from League One, despite the club being under a transfer embargo for the entire season. Survival in the Championship last term, thanks to two goals in an incredible final four minutes of the season, at home to Nottingham Forest. These were exceptional events. They couldn't possibly be sustained.
Behind the scenes, problems were never far away. A public mud-slinging match with Dean Holdsworth – at first his co-owner, but swiftly ousted. Anderson's regular 'Chairman's Notes' column on the club's official website, often drifting into bizarre rants at whoever he'd fallen out with that week, from caterers, to the Supporters' Trust, to the local media. Criticism was met with a column of catty responses; his dirty laundry aired for everyone to see, as fans watched on with increasing dismay.
For two years in a row, summer wages were paid on time to some players, and not to others. In the summer of 2017, that merely led to a public spat between Anderson and departed left-back Dean Moxey. “He's been paid handsomely based on the number of games he started last season,” was Anderson's response, ignoring the fact that contracts don't really work that way. Players are owed what they're owed, whether they played regularly or not.
In the summer of 2018, a similar wage scenario caused a player strike, forcing the embarrassing cancellation of a friendly at St Mirren. Months later, the departed Karl Henry was still asking for his money on Twitter. Fans were contacting the popular midfielder on social media, to apologise for Anderson's behaviour.
Despite it all, Bolton somehow sat third in the Championship table after the opening four games of the new season. Three wins, one draw, 10 points. Phil Parkinson appeared to be a miracle worker.
But then off-field problems finally derailed everything in early September, when the club were just hours from going into administration over a £4m loan. Repayment was overdue, and Anderson didn't have the means to pay it. Only another loan from Eddie Davies, the former club benefactor who helped Bolton reach European football, averted disaster.
That same week, Davies tragically died of a heart attack. Days later, the club was left devastated again when full-back Stephen Darby was diagnosed with motor neurone disease and forced to retire.
Understandably, off-field events began to take their toll on the field. Ten games between mid-September and mid-November produced only two goals, and a slide to the relegation zone. Confidence drained, quality was severely lacking and Parkinson's overly cautious approach grew ever more controversial. Possession stats were usually horrifying, even at home, where Bolton usually played like the away team. No Football League club has picked up fewer points at home this season.
Anderson spoke of being ready to change things if results continued, but then became so distracted by the ever-mounting financial problems and his attempts to sell the club, that events on the field became almost of secondary importance.
Bolton embarrassingly lost one of their main strikers back to a League Two club, having failed to pay the transfer fee due to Forest Green Rovers for Christian Doidge. When Forest Green owner Dale Vince voiced his anger at the situation and threatened to sue, Anderson simply revived his Chairman's Notes column, flinging as much mud at Vince as he could dig up. Yet another rambling rant. On the official club website. For everyone to see.
When fans marched in protest at the way Anderson was running the club, the chairman hit out at them too. Meanwhile, bad results and bad performances went on and on.
Reasons for fear
Supporters have grown used to turning up at matches expecting defeat, not even expecting a goal to cheer. Since those opening four games of the season brought 10 points, Bolton have played 38 games, lost 26 of them, picked up only 22 more points and scored just 23 goals. No Football League team has scored fewer goals this season, or lost more games.
Matches have become a chore; a joyless experience to be endured – not because we really want to be there, but because as fans it's just what we do. Even in the most miserable of times, loyalty remains. On many afternoons, the final whistle has been a blessed relief. Hope disappeared long beforehand.
Not that the players can really be blamed. They've endured uncertainty over wages time and again since the end of November, the first occasion this season when salaries weren't paid on time. Often there has been no apology, and no explanation for when wages would arrive.
Eventually the situation takes it toll on the field. Caught between a rock and a hard place, manager Parkinson has spent as much time answering questions about wages as trying to prepare a football team to somehow avoid relegation.
There was a 6-0 loss at Hull on New Year's Day, when heads dropped and the hosts rattled through five goals in 21 second-half minutes. There was the 5-2 defeat at neighbours and relegation rivals Wigan, when goalkeeper Remi Matthews did his best recreation of Shay Given's infamous error against Dion Dublin, rolling the ball out without spotting that there was an opponent behind him, waiting to steal the ball. Result: goal, and more humiliation.
Last weekend, there was the 4-0 defeat at Derby County, when Frank Lampard suggested he was disappointed his side hadn't scored 10.
Relegation has been inevitable for some time now – it long became the least of everyone's worries. More important was that the club still existed.
An unpaid tax bill put Bolton back in court; they’ve twice had to stave off a winding-up order, leading to bank accounts being frozen. Staff were made to wait for wages – again – and players finally decided enough was enough, refusing to turn up for training for a brief period. With concerns about whether matchday stewards might be a no-show for similar reasons, the council revoked the stadium's safety certificate, putting two home matches in doubt. The club's chief scout could no longer travel to watch matches because his fuel funds had been cut off. The farce got worse and worse.
Bolton may have more points than Ipswich this season, despite being played off the park by them earlier this month, but there's a greater sense of dread about the months and years to come. One recent headline suggested that Ipswich fans are 'meeting relegation to League One with optimism' under Paul Lambert. No such mood at Bolton.
Some kind of future
Finally, Anderson has now agreed to sell the club. To Laurence Bassini – a man who's twice been declared bankrupt. A man who presided over one farcical, solitary season as owner of Watford, resulting in him being banned from taking a position of authority at any Football League club for three years, after he was found to have breached regulations.
"If Bolton fans think they’ve got a problem with Ken Anderson, they’re going to have a bigger problem with Laurence Bassini," warned former Crystal Palace chief Simon Jordan, who's had personal dealings with Bolton's new owner. Watford fans have been getting in contact to voice their concern and sympathy for what may lie ahead.
Bassini will take over subject to passing the Football League's official owners and directors' test, and he has big ambitions. He wants to take Bolton back to the Premier League within three years – a claim that's been met with no shortage of scepticism, given the mess the club is in right now. He's also revealed that he doesn't know the full extent of the club's debts, because he hasn't had time to do full due diligence. Slightly worrying.
The last time Bolton went down to League One, three years ago, the club returned to the second tier within a season. This time, there's greater concern.
No one really knows what the next year or two have in store. Hopefully Bassini delivers on his promises. Hopefully everything turns out all right. The alternative may not bear thinking about.
The days of beating Atletico Madrid seem a long time ago now. With good reason, Boltonians are no longer the happiest people in England.
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