Bolton. Once the preserve of Vernon Kay, they were memorably hard to beat in the old days at the Reebok. Sam Allardyce led the club to their best spell in recent years after the turn of the century, using the new-fanged idea of analysing data with the help of Prozone to give his team a tactical edge.
Big Sam managed to get the most out of talents like Jay Jay Okocha and two-time Champions League winner Ivan Campo, and it culminated with a runners-up medal in the 2003/04 League Cup, and European football a few years later.
In 2012, Okocha was interviewed by the Telegraph, where he reflected on his time at Bolton after the club were relegated from the top flight;
“We changed the image of the club, we established the club in the Premier League and we thought they would build from there. But all our efforts have been thrown away. It feels like all that work was wasted.”
They currently sit bottom of League One, with the trapdoor looming ever closer. But what are Bolton’s chances of getting back to the big time, and what happened to the club since that fell through the trapdoor?
Dropping Out Of The Championship
After relegation in 2012, successive finishes showed an obvious downward trend. 7th in their first year, then 14th, 18th, and finally dead last as they plunged into League One. An instant promotion in 2016/17 offered a brief glimmer of hope, but they ended their last Championship run with a strike, as the squad refused to play in protest regarding unpaid wages.
Life in League One is tough enough at the best of times, but the Wanderers owed nearly 300 creditors for various debts accrued over the previous decade.
The players strike caused a five-point deduction, suspended for 18 months, for failing to fulfil fixtures against Brentford last season and Doncaster this term. They also had to deal with a 12-point deduction for going into administration, further deepening their woes as they headed into League One for a second spell.
Life in League One
The club set up a food bank with donations from local businesses to help out staff who hadn’t been paid midway through 2019, and they were finally sold after a £10m takeover by Football Ventures in August.
They couldn’t field a competitive team against Chester, Preston and Oldham Athletic as pre-season friendlies had to be cancelled, and the club quickly moved to sign nine players before the transfer window closed.
Unsurprisingly, they’re currently last in the league. Bolton fielded an academy team for a 2-0 loss at Wycombe in August, and they were spanked 5-0 against Tranmere, Ipswich, and Gillingham respectively in a month to forget.
The dismal start and the 12-point deduction mean that they’re currently 17 points from safety with three matches in hand, and 14 games left to play.
Despite fighting back with a couple of good results like a recent 2-0 win over fellow strugglers Tranmere Rovers, they’re up against high flying Wycombe and a strong Doncaster side in the next few weeks.
The tie against relegation-threatened MK Dons straight after will be pivotal.
The Premier League Years
Bolton played in one of the two highest tiers of English football until the 1980’s, and had a solid Premier League run where they mixed it with the European elite for a brief time.
People of a certain age will remember the team and the manager, who made it work against all odds on a shoestring budget. While wages were high, the overall quality of the side was notable across the park, and many arrived for next to nothing.
The talents of Nicolas Anelka, Okocha and the like were supplemented by more industrious players like the two Kevins, Nolan and Davies, while the manager ensured that most sides dreaded the prospect of visiting Bolton. (I’ll leave a space for you to make your own jokes here.)
But is there any chance they’ll manage to turn it all around?
A Return to the Glory Days?
Do they seem like candidates for returning to the big leagues? In truth, Bolton are probably closer to dropping out of the Football League than making a triumphant return to the top flight when you look at the table objectively.
The University of Bolton Stadium seats 28,723, making it fifth overall in the league in terms of capacity. However, they’re lucky to fill less than half of the seats with home fans, which is fair considering the state of affairs on the pitch.
Finances have clearly been an issue, which is why it was welcome to hear that former players had been paid by the new owners in November 2019. At worst, they should be able to stop the freefall as long as the Football Ventures consortium manages to offer some much-needed stability over the next few years.
Keith Hill has a tough task coaching his home town club, and while it’s not his fault that the kids were fielded throughout August, they’ll all pay the price if the team goes down. The former Rochdale boss has won two in his last ten, but even Big Sam would be struggling considering the circumstances.