British football enjoyed some of its best times in the 2007-08 season, especially on the continental scene. In the Champions League, all four qualified clubs made it to the quarter-finals, with three progressing to the penultimate round before an all-English showdown in Moscow between Manchester United and Chelsea. In the UEFA Cup, it was Rangers that made it all the way to the final, before losing out to Zenit Saint Petersburg at the City of Manchester Stadium.
One club, however, had a story of their own that was worth applauding. Bolton Wanderers, a modest club from the north of England, were one of the country’s most ambitious clubs, with a well-defined transfer policy and an unattractive yet sustainable style of football.
They often chose to combine ageing, but still valuable players, with bargains and form a side capable of challenging the upper echelons of the division, whilst achieving the primary motive of maintaining their Premier League status. At one point, the club had the likes of Jay-Jay Okocha, Iván Campo and Eiður Guðjohnsen on their books – they were a model for other mid-table outfits to follow.
In the 2007-08 season, the club from Lancashire were enjoying another season playing continental football. Two years prior, under the shrewd management of Sam Allardyce, they played against teams like Beşiktaş and Vitória before being knocked out by Marseille. Now, seemingly more strengthened and under the tutelage of Gary Megson, who had come in after a messy managerial situation, they were set to play more of Europe’s prestigious clubs.
That season, they became the first British club to win an away game against Red Star Belgrade. Bolton also enjoyed an aggregate victory of Atlético Madrid, but the most engrossing of them all was a 2-2 away draw at Bayern Munich – one of the club’s most famous results. Although they were cruelly knocked out by Portugal’s Sporting Clube, this run was memorable.
Unfortunately, however, it was one of the last good moments the fans of this highly respectable football club would enjoy, for the next decade would be embroiled in chaos on and off the pitch.
“OF COURSE BOLTON IS DIFFERENT FROM WHERE I GREW UP, BUT I ADMIRE IT IN DIFFERENT WAYS. THE PEOPLE ARE HONEST AND WORKING-CLASS. THEY LOVE FOOTBALL” – IVÁN CAMPO TO THE NATIONAL
Campo’s assessment of the club, the city, and its people are accurate. In a region that has the glory and riches of the two Manchester clubs, United and City, Bolton were forging a reputation of their own in the 2000s as they aimed to break into the elite with a model of their own. Having achieved promotion to the top flight in 2001, they would prove to be difficult to overcome against the traditional “big four” and would lay down a marker of consistency – finishing in the top eight for consecutive seasons between 2004 and 2007.
Many believe this team to be the greatest mid-table team in English history – one that continuously punched above their weight but failed to break in amongst the best just as much.
However, it was their own reluctance that would prove to be one of Bolton’s downfalls. Sam Allardyce’s departure, in his own words, was due to the lack of ambition shown by the board. He believed he could take them to the Champions League, but it was the club’s reluctance to align their vision with his that led to both going their separate ways.
Though the short-term future was magnificent, it was the long-term that was utter pandemonium. The UEFA Cup masked over a disappointing league campaign where they finished 16th, beating the drop by a point, and proving to be a far cry from the teams that were constantly challenging the top half of the table.
That season, they managed to recover a significant amount of money from the sale of Nicholas Anelka to Chelsea, but it was the spending that cost them – not only in monetary terms but on the pitch as well.
The signings made in the summer transfer window weren’t adequate enough. The £8 million signing of Johan Elmander and £2 million purchase of Daniel Shittu would prove to be underwhelming. They were large sums chucked out at players who would hardly perform at their best.
Over time, the club would see their debt rise greatly, while performances on the pitch wouldn’t see a change. With no income from European football, the Premier League would be their only hope and even there, they were in a mess. They did survive, but it was clear that their luck would run out sooner rather than later.
The following season, Bolton started poorly again and only earned 18 points from the first 18 games, thus resulting in the sacking of Megson midway through the campaign. Owen Coyle was brought in to replace him and meet the club’s principal aim of maintaining their top-flight status.
However, the problem with Megson’s sacking was that the club and manager failed to agree on a compensation deal which meant that he would have to be paid on a weekly basis from the club’s ailing finances.
Coyle, however, did a decent job. Thrown straight into the firing line by joining the club in the midst of the January transfer window, he made two smart signings on temporary loan deals in the forms of Vladimír Weiss and Jack Wilshere from Manchester City and Arsenal respectively.
The two were frequent starters for the Wanderers, helping the club gain crucial results and secure another season of Premier League football by finishing 14th. Things were looking up once again after a strong end to the season, and there was hope that the next campaign would be one of mid-table obscurity rather than a relegation battle.
Debts were on the rise and that resulted in most incoming players joining either on a free transfer or on temporary loan deals. That season, players like Marcos Alonso, Rodrigo Moreno and Daniel Sturridge joined the club – the latter two on loan – and played a key part in Bolton’s season as they would finish 14th once again.
The final standing is not fully reflective of the progress they had made, however. They enjoyed a strong start and only struggled at the tail end of the campaign. To add to the positivity, there was also a trip to Wembley for the FA Cup semi-final. The result, though, was less pleasing – a 5-0 defeat to Stoke City.
Three key changes resulted in all the hope from the previous two campaigns turn into faux positivity in the 2011-12 campaign. This squad was stern, determined to survive and make a name for themselves, but they were dented greatly in the early part of the campaign.
Stuart Holden and Lee Chung-Yong, two players that had important roles in the first team were ruled out for much of the season early on, while midway through, Fabrice Muamba’s collapse at White Hart Lane that resulted in his reluctant retirement saw the team become thinner. Incoming signings were hardly of the required quality, while the sale of Gary Cahill to Chelsea further weakened the team.
Coyle and Bolton failed to replicate the guile of the seasons gone by. Amidst increasing issues on and off the pitch, they were finally relegated from the Premier League after an 11-year stay, finishing a point behind 17th-placed Queens Park Rangers. The ending was sour – a 2-2 draw against Stoke City in dubious circumstances was met with great controversy, but the result stood. Bolton were on their way down.
Life in the Championship didn’t start with too much hope. With a massive wage bill carried down from the Premier League – the largest in the division – and the club being in debt of over £110 million to Edwin Davies, the majority shareholder of Burnden Leisure, who owned the club, there was a lot to sort out. That summer, the club were active in the transfer market, although the quality of players going out was much greater than the influx.
Keen on reducing their wage bill and providing slight stability to their finances, the likes of Nigel Reo-Coker, Ivan Klasnić and Jussi Jääskeläinen – some of the highest earners at the club – were all let go following their relegation. Players came in, once again on free transfers and temporary deals, while the club continued to keep faith in manager Owen Coyle, who had done relatively well considering the situation.
After another bad start and with the club languishing towards the bottom of the table, the faith in Coyle was broken. He received the sack in October 2012, thus resulting in further compensation payments to dampen the club’s finances, but in came Dougie Freedman. The former Crystal Palace manager did extremely well in his role, taking the club from 20th when he joined to finishing the season in seventh place, just below the promotion play-off spots.
One can only wonder how far they could’ve gone had they brought in Freedman earlier, instead, the club, fans and board were left to rue the missed chance and would enter another downward spiral.
Failure to secure promotion at the first time of asking would create more problems. The interest owed to Davies would rise, wages for players and non-playing staff alike would rise and there would be little left to improve the squad.
Phil Gartside, the club’s Chairman, was also guilty of paying over-inflated fees to agents to secure signings. Other than that, players like Keith Andrews and Lee Chung-Yong, two that spend lots of time on the treatment table, were on well over £1 million-a-season. The club needed a massive restructuring, but it was nowhere to be found.
The following season, their second in the Championship in succession, was unsatisfactory – although, that’s hardly a surprise. They finished 14th, nowhere near fighting for promotion and hardly did anything noteworthy in the cup competitions.
That season also resulted in the end of the Premier League’s parachute payments – an amount given to a recently-relegated club to help balance the baggage carried down when relegated. Another major income was cut off, but considering the way money was spent, could the people in power have been trusted with it?
The turmoil continued from there. Freedman was gone and in came Neil Lennon, a man with Champions League experience, and hopes were raised again. The club, once again, failed to match expectations, instead, staying in the way they were. The only highlight of the season came in defeat – they took Liverpool to a replay in the fourth round of the FA Cup after a goalless draw at Anfield but would lose at home.
With nothing much to take pride in that season, it seemed more transitionary than anything else. Neil Lennon, a manager with title-winning experience in Scotland was probably being given some leeway to aid a wounded football club, which was no easy task by any means.
However, the next few years would bring a lot more pain, chaos, and confusion, starting with the manager himself. There were allegations against Lennon that he threatened his mistress with a knife if she revealed details about their relationship to his wife. This nearly cost the Scot his job early in the season, although Bolton retained faith in their man, albeit temporarily. After poor results on the pitch, including just two wins in 25 league games, Lennon was given the boot and there was more turnover on the touchline.
Other than that, players were sold, the squad was unstable, and the club were handed a transfer ban for the winter window of 2016. On the grander scale, there were more financial issues facing the club. The staff, playing and non-playing, weren’t paid their wages for November 2015 on time.
Furthermore, they even faced the threat of receiving a winding-up order from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for unpaid taxes. A respectable club that hosted European football less than a decade ago was now in a sorry state.
Fortunately, in November 2015, Eddie Davies had agreed to write off the debt – which had risen to over £180 million and four months later, another character joined the story. Ken Anderson became Chairman of the club, replacing Phil Gartside and at a time where the club were bad on the pitch and facing the prospect of liquidation, he was a late saviour, although, not a very promising one. Backed by a £4 million loan on high interest, he assumed 95% of the club’s ownership.
Their poor league form saw them suffer relegation from the second tier that season, although, all things considered, that was the secondary problem. They had won just five games that season and ended the season with a squad significantly weaker than what they had started with having sold several players to raise funds.
When in League One, there was another glimmer of hope. The season started with the appointment of the intelligent Phil Parkinson, the former Bradford City manager who had led the Bantams to the English League Cup final in 2013 and knew his way in the third division.
His impressive start at the club was a breath of fresh air. Bolton made their best start to a season in 82 years and were instantly pushing to bounce back up, while Parkinson himself was voted League One’s Manager of the Month twice in the first three months of the season.
The positive start to the campaign was carried on throughout the season. The Wanderers’ gained promotion by finishing runners-up in the league behind Sheffield United, but back in the Championship, things went bleak again.
They survived the 2017-18 season by the skin of their teeth, beating the drop by two points. Having gone the first 11 games of the season without a win, they kept faith in Parkinson and let him go through the whole campaign – a rare smart call by the club.
That luck would now run out. Without much of an improvement in the squad, Bolton have spent much of the 2018-19 campaign fighting relegation. [At the time of writing] They sit second from bottom, but the problems are rife. The staff has refused to work, while players have refused to train until their wages are paid for the winter months, while there is a court hearing [on April 3] over unpaid debts and taxes.
There is a great risk that the club could enter administration, while Ken Anderson has seemingly told the staff that there is an interested buyer in the form of Laurence Bassini, who was the owner of Watford between 2011 and 2012.
Over the course of his ownership, Anderson has caused more anger amongst the Bolton supporters. Accounts for the end of the 2017 financial year showed that he had taken £525,000 in “consultancy fees”, while another payment of £125,000 was made to a company owned by a member of the family for the same reason. In short, the little money earned by the falling club was satisfying the greed of an owner with no intention to take his project forward.
In addition to that, the £4 million loan taken by Anderson still needs to be paid back, while it was revealed that a further £5 million was taken from Eddie Davies just before the former owner’s death.
It has been a sorry decade for Bolton Wanderers. From the elation of seeing the likes of Jay-Jay Okocha, Youri Djorkaeff and Eiður Guðjohnsen to the despair of having an uncertain future that is looking at the lower divisions, the fans of this historic football club have suffered greatly. It’s a long way back until Premier League football returns, meaning fans can only hope that ownership and financial issues get sorted sooner rather than later.
As Iván Campo said about them, they are an admirable group that love the club, it’s that unity that is needed now more than ever as the Lancashire club looks to rebuild from scratch.