The Column: Where Did It Go Wrong For Bolton?

It was only eight years ago that Bolton Wanderers drew 2-2 with Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena. They beat Atletico Madrid over two legs that season as well. You’ll remember too that a few years before that saw the golden era of Sam Allardyce’s reign. Fernando Hierro, Jay Jay Okocha, Youri Djorkaeff, Ivan Campo and all the rest, champions of the game who somehow wound up at a small club in Lancashire and became legends.

Now Bolton Wanderers have fallen from grace, though the past tense is probably inaccurate. They may have some distance left to fall yet. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment the Whites took the jump off the edge into the apparently infinite abyss. Some would argue our fate was set in stone once Big Sam left the club, citing a lack of ambition from the board as his motive. Maybe it was the string of misjudged appointments of his successors. Perhaps it was when we reached the new Wembley for the first time to compete in the FA Cup semi-final and were ripped apart like a stray gazelle by Stoke City. The incident my mind always goes back to is when  Jonny Evans implanted his studs into Stuart Holden’s knee, an injury from which the dynamic midfielder and soul of the Wanderers team never fully recovered. The truth of the matter, however, is that, now with the benefit of hindsight, this was always on the cards. Years of spending beyond our means and, more importantly, a complete lack of preparation for life without the Premier League’s money and then life without owner Eddie Davies’ money, set us on a path to the shambling, pitiful mess of today. 

Eddie Davies, a businessman who made his fortune selling kettle elements, is the owner of the club. For years, as Bolton continued to spend more than they earned, he would bankroll the club on to his company, Burnden Leisure, so even though the ever increasing amount of debt at Bolton had reached insane proportions, we were always reassured that it was a ‘soft-debt’ – that it would never really effect us because it was all owed to Eddie. That’s how the debt pilled up to £185m. Well, now Davies has completely pulled all his funding from the club. He is no longer willing to bankroll the club, no longer willing to invest another penny. Which means Bolton have nothing. 

Really, the money dried up some time ago. The last fee the Whites paid for a player was approximately £1.5 million for Jay Spearing in August 2013. Since then it has been nothing but loans and Bosman signings that have supplemented the squad. Now, without Davies’ backing, the club’s problems are far worse than a shrinking transfer kitty. 

This season has been an unmitigated disaster; a crawl from one depressing revelation to the next, and that’s just off the pitch. On the pitch, it’s awful too. We currently sit bottom of the Championship table somehow only four  points from safety (which is testament to the awful quality of this division) having won only three games all season. At one point, Wanderers endured a 107-day streak without a victory.

There were hints of what was to come back in September when desperate attempts to add to the strike force of Gary Madine and Emile Heskey kept failing. Moves for Marvin Emnes, Victor Anichebe and Igor Vetokele all fell through, but still we weren’t aware of what was on the horizon. Besides, Shola Ameobi was eventually signed and he scored on his debut. Then things began to get worse. Much worse. A loan move for Wolves’ Rajiv van La Parra, which by all accounts was virtually completed, collapsed as Bolton didn’t have the funds. It was then revealed that Davies would no longer support the club, chairman Phil Gartside had been taken seriously ill and Trevor Birch, known for his efforts with clubs in similarly dire straights such as Portsmouth and Leeds United, was drafted in to act as advisor to the board and to sell the club. Bidders came in quick and fast as two consortiums led by two former players, Dean Holdsworth and Stelios Giannakopoulos, both registered their interest in the club. This, coupled with the fact that it was confirmed that Eddie Davies would wipe all the debt owed to him once the club was sold, meant Wanderers fans had cause to be optimistic – it seemed as though the sorry state of affairs would actually have a quick fix. But it’s Bolton Wanderers, and no such luck exists these days. Instead, the fans have had to endure more months of misery.

Players and staff at the club then went unpaid for November, and in addition to that seasonal hammer blow, weren’t guaranteed they’d be paid in time for Christmas either. Thankfully, they were paid in December, but the strain of it all has begun to take its toll. HRMC issued a winding up order, and even though the court case was adjourned until late February. It is believed that HRMC wanted to liquidate the club there and then.

On top of all this, Bolton have now been placed under a transfer embargo, meaning that they can’t re-sign the aforementioned Ameobi after his contract ran out, even after he offered to play for free. It makes you long for the days when you were only ever annoyed about the actual football. And we’re still not done. The threat of the entire squad leaving if they weren’t paid still hangs over us, the assets of the club are being sold away to ensure survival, there’s a strong possibility that prize assets Zach Cough and Josh Vela may be sold for a fraction of what they’re worth and there’s still a real chance that we may just cease to exist all together. It’s pretty bleak. The lifeblood of a community, an institution into which tens of thousands of people have poured effort, emotion and money…gone. Just gone.

It’s a strain that perhaps would have demoralised a weaker group of supporters, but somehow Bolton fans are still standing, still remain resilient and perhaps even a little hopeful. A Twitter campaign in December saw supporters come together to try and #FillTheMacron. Fans from around the world bought tickets, despite not being able to attend the Wanderers home fixture against Cardiff City, and gave them to supporters who couldn’t afford to buy their own. Over 1,000 fans made the 500-mile round-trip to see us draw 1-1 with non-league side Eastleigh in the FA Cup third round. Most pertinently of all, the Bolton Wanderers Football Club Supporters’ Trust is in the process of being formed. The first meeting was attended by over 1,000 fans, and followed by hundreds online, who all voted unanimously in favour of the formation of a Trust. Now, less than a month later, the Trust has near 6,000 members, the largest ever, even bigger than the Pompey Trust, which actually owns Portsmouth FC.

But what needs to happen now to ensure the club’s survival? Well, the club needs to be sold, and soon. For reasons still not entirely known, a deal has not yet been done. Davies has been cautious with every potential bidder, as he apparently does not want the club to fall into the wrong hands. It is actually on sale for a single English pound, but any potential buyers must be able to prove they have sufficient funds to pay off various loans and to ensure the club can survive until the end of the season. While that care is appreciated, Davies’ safeguarding of the club might be slowly killing it. It appears that there are now three candidates still in the race, with Dean Holdsworth’s Sports Shield consortium, Egyptian billionaire Rodger Tamraz and the Supporters’ Trust, who recently revealed their own intention on being named the preferred bidder.

Rumours seem to signal that a takeover is edging closer to completion by the day, and one has to be completed by the next court date on February 22nd or the club may face liquidation once again, but rumours have been signalling things for weeks now and nothing has happened. It seems just as likely that the consortiums will fuck the whole thing off altogether in frustration. That would leave us up shit creek without a boat, let alone a paddle. It’s been a long, stressful few months, one that has brought many people to question why they even follow the club, with many slowly losing the appetite to attend games. And who can blame them?

It’s become unbearable. Waking up every day to read another depressing tale, then to be given the slightest glimmer of hope only for it to be snatched away. Honestly, it’s fucking shit. But you should all be paying attention. You should all be watching us as we die. Because there’s no chance that we’ll be the last club to go like this. The way in which English football, especially in the Championship, is currently structured is completely unsustainable. Clubs piling millions into the transfer market in the hope that they’ll reach the promised land of the Premier League. Those who make it are absolutely golden right up until the moment that they’re not. And they’re punished; a vicious cycle that will continue to spin until the Championship finally implodes on its self.

If Bolton do somehow survive this and remain in existence, then some other equally historic, important club will follow us to the edge of oblivion before long. It happened to us. It could happen to your club too. 

You can follow Dan Murphy on Twitter. (@murbroski)

The Column: Where Did It Go Wrong For Bolton?
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