As Brentford’s Ollie Watkins rounded the Bolton defence to seal an emphatic 3-0 victory, the home supporters at the Macron Stadium made their way to the exits. Five months ago they had stayed behind long after a 3-0 win over Peterborough to celebrate promotion, but the joy of returning to the Championship at the first attempt has quickly vanished. With two points from ten games, Phil Parkinson’s side are on target to equal the worst ever start to a second-tier campaign set by Coventry City all the way back in 1919. Despite the jubilant scenes in April, there is still no happy ending to a decade of downfall.
It wasn’t always like this. Inspired by Sam Allardyce, captain Jay-Jay Okocha, and a host of ageing and revitalised stars including former Real Madrid pair Fernando Hierro and Ivan Campo, Bolton recorded four successive top-eight finishes in the Premier League in the early 2000s. As recently as November 2007, they held the mighty Bayern Munich to a 2-2 draw in the UEFA Cup, with a German team featuring the likes of Oliver Kahn, Franck Ribery, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Miroslav Klose failing to find a way past Kevin Nolan and Kevin Davies.
That famous night at the Allianz Arena could not have felt more improbable on Saturday. Despite the hosts’ endeavour in the opening quarter, in which Antonee Robinson and Gary Madine put Brentford on the back-foot, the visitors soon took control, lashing home three thumping strikes to consign Bolton to a sixth successive defeat. Parkinson’s side haven’t mustered a goal in that dismal run, which continued with a 2-0 loss at Bristol City on Tuesday evening. It is now more than 10 hours since anyone in a Wanderers shirt last found the net, leaving the fans contemplating a miserable slog at the foot of the table.
“The feeling is resignation more than anything,” Wanderers supporter Tom Winrow told The Totally Football League Show. “The feeling before the end of September is that we’ll be back in League One next season. It was supposedly a six-pointer where we’d see if we could go toe-to-toe with the likes of Brentford, who are going to be around the relegation zone, and we were totally outclassed. Whatever formation we tried, whatever substitutions Parkinson made, we just weren’t on Brentford’s level and it seems as though we’ll be occupying 24th place in the Championship.”
For Winrow and his fellow supporters, last season’s success provided a welcome distraction to the financial crisis that triggered the club’s tumble into the third tier. Amid an interminable transfer embargo, new ownership wrangle and ongoing takeover speculation, Parkinson guided Wanderers to second place in his first season in charge. When current chairman Ken Anderson acquired Dean Holdsworth’s shares in March this year to control a 95% stake in the club, it was supposed to signal a period of calm in the boardroom. But the supporters are still waiting to learn what the future holds.
In Saturday’s programme notes, Anderson expressed his disappointment at the chairman of the Bolton Wanderers Supporters Trust, Daniel Izza, over a disagreement that concerns the application for an Asset of Community Value order on the Macron Stadium. Under the ACV, which was granted by the council in February, the trust would get six weeks to state their intention to bid if the stadium is listed for sale, and another four-and-a-half months to raise funds. There are no guarantees that the bid would be accepted, and Anderson has appealed the council’s decision as he believes it would slow down any potential refinancing deal that would benefit the club.
“With regards to the finances we’re far from out of the woods,” continued Winrow, who runs the Lion of Vienna Suite blog. “The transfer embargo was partially lifted two weeks ago, meaning that we can now play some of the younger professionals, which is one of the things Bolton fans were quite upset with the Football League about. The only issue the fans have is that we still haven’t seen the colour of [Anderson’s] money. We still haven’t seen investment.”
Bolton’s former benefactor Eddie Davies wrote off a reported £180m loan debt to facilitate Anderson and Holdsworth’s takeover in March 2016, but the new owners fell out over the sale of promising forward Zach Clough to Nottingham Forest, prompting Holdsworth’s departure. Clough’s exit was felt keenly on the pitch. The 22-year-old had scored nine goals in League One by the time he was sold in January and none of his former teammates managed to beat that total over the course of the full campaign.
It is little surprise, then, that Bolton have struggled in front of goal this season. But what has been unexpected is the sloppiness in defence. Bolton had the best defensive record in League One last year, conceding only 36 times in their 46 matches, as Wheater and centre-back partner Mark Beevers provided the foundation for a promotion push. Watching them pulled out of position by Brentford’s lively forward line, firstly in a back five and then a back three as Parkinson sought a foothold in the game, it appeared the step up in quality has been too great.
The defeat to Brentford brought calls for Parkinson to go, but Bolton’s problems run far deeper than the team’s struggles on the pitch. Having finished 13 points above play-off winners Millwall in League One, some supporters are frustrated that Wanderers have failed to match the Lions’ strong start. But Millwall, who are also battling off-the-field issues, were able to recruit smartly over the summer, paying fees for Wolves pair George Saville and Jed Wallace along with Jake Cooper from Reading.
It is difficult to think who could do a better job than Parkinson, especially considering what he has achieved in the face of adversity since joining from Bradford in June 2016. Until the long-term future of the club is resolved, uncertainty will continue to hang over the Macron Stadium. The only sure thing is that Bolton are set for a long season of struggle.