The long read: Bolton Wanderers kept alive by passionate fans as club treads a worryingly similar path to Coventry City
Andy Mitten spends time at a proud, historic club that once battled in the upper echelons of the Premier League - but now faces an uncertain future
Heavy rain blows in off the cloud-covered West Lancashire hills by Bolton Wanderers’ stadium and lashes the surrounding car parks.
Early arrivals for their first League One home game of the season wait in their cars for the rain to relent before dashing towards the distinctive venue built for Premier League football in 1997.
A teenager in a Bolton Wanderers’ tracksuit moves fastest.
“Are you playing today?” shouts a fan.
“I hope so,” replies the footballer who the fan doesn’t appear to recognise.
Moving at a slower pace and shielding his face against the wintry August winds, a man in his forties explains that he is still owed money for the last five games of the 2018-19 season.
“I’m a steward here and I’ve honestly no idea what is going to happen today – I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s no game,” he says. “Nobody tells us much, we only know what we read in the press.
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"I steward at Wigan [Athletic] too and we always get paid there. This isn’t my full time job but the money is important. I like coming here and helping out, I even see some of the games – but I’m not sure that’s a good thing. Decent people watch this football club and I don’t want to see it fold.”
Bolton manager Phil Parkinson makes the same dash through the rain, past Lowryesque figures cowering as they walk to the match. The 51-year old looks relaxed and smiles for fans, but the situation at Wanderers has been anything but.
One of the 12 founder members of the Football League, Bolton were relegated to England’s third tier last season and have started this one with a 12-point deduction after entering administration. They are on a slide which could see them drop to the fourth tier for only the second time in their history.
The fixtures pair Bolton with Coventry City, another troubled, fallen former Premier League club, but the match wasn’t confirmed to go ahead until 48 hours before.
“I’m just happy we’ve got a game – and a football club,” declares another fan sheltering near Bolton Central, the club shop which isn’t allowed to sell merchandise.
Instead, the near empty shelves look over a space hastily reconfigured for fans to queue for tickets which only went on sale 28 hours before the match – and for one day only. Around 8,000 were sold, to be picked up in the club shop which can’t sell merchandise because the actual ticket office can’t sell tickets on the day.
Around the corner, Bolton fans gather at the Whites Hotel which forms part of the stadium but is a separate entity to the football club and is also part of the sale negotiations.
“We’ve followed them all our lives," explains Tim Higson, of Manchester. “I saw the team rise from the fourth division to the Premier League. Frank Worthington [the 1970s striker] was the best player I saw. And now?” he says, shaking his head.
“We’re completely in the dark about what’s going on but we still blindly follow our football team because that’s what me and dad do on a Saturday,” his son Chris Higson adds. They support Wanderers because Tim’s father came from Horwich, close to the stadium.
“We would see my grandfather’s brother here until he passed away last year. There’s a strong community at Bolton, a strong away following. And there has always been a gallows humour around this football club. We try and make the best out of what is often a grim situation and it’s grim right now.”
They get much of their news from the excellent work of local journalist Marc Illes of the Bolton News, who covers every Wanderers’ cough and splutter diligently. Too diligently for previous owner Ken Anderson who banned him from games.
Other Bolton fans have given up their own time for free to cover the court battles around the ownership of the club they love, while they and Illes write about accountants rather than attackers, solicitors not substitutes.
Bolton’s problem is financial and longstanding since they lost their long-time benefactor Eddie Davies. Attendances dropped from above 25,000 in the Premier League to below 15,000, the annual wage bill fell from £53 million (Dh235m) in 2012 to £13m in 2018.
Worse still, the club’s future was threatened because of tax money owed to HMRC and the ongoing wage bill. Bolton’s debt was a vast £200m, and though owner and lifelong supporter Davies wrote off a massive £170m, the club was still unable to pay the tax owed, or their overheads, forcing them to sell assets, such as their training ground. Subsequent custodians couldn’t stem the flow.
“There have been supposed takeovers and aborted takeovers,” explains Tim. "The hope for this season is that we can stay in existence and then stay up.”
“It’s heart-breaking and woeful,” echoes Matthew Lawrenson, a hardcore fan standing outside the ground with his five-year-old son James. Lawrenson helped raise £3,000 with a sponsored walk for Bolton’s staff who had gone unpaid.
“We’ve been told so many times that the takeover deal is about to be done by Football Ventures before a [blocking] injunction is put in place,” he says. “Laurence Bassini who put out the injunction is portrayed as the villain in this. I want the takeover to go through, the club to survive. Survival of the club is more important than survival in this division.”
We will come to Bassini later but Bolton’s heart still beats strongly in adversity.
“We took 1,600 to Wycombe last week and it was like a party, with fans backing the team from start to finish even though we lost,” states Lawrenson. “There’s a real defiance.”
Bury, a League One rival of sorts for Bolton, only six miles away, are also in serious financial trouble. Yet while Bolton’s first games were allowed to go ahead, Bury’s were not.
Lawrenson sympathises. “I wouldn’t want any football fans to go through what we’re going through”.
The Manchester giants are only 12 miles to the south, but it is a different world. “Fans moaning after their club have only spent £135m. For us, there has to be better governance to stop clubs getting in this situation.”
Lawrenson’s point is key to what has happened. The Owners’ and Directors’ Test process, which confirms whether an individual is fit and proper to run an English football club, is failing these community institutions with over 125 years of history.
Steve Dale, owner of Bury, had past insolvencies linked to his name, yet was allowed to take control of Bury. A problem is that much power lies with the clubs, not football’s authorities. And those owners come and go while diehard fans pick up the emotional pieces.
Little James is asked who his favourite Bolton players are. “I don’t know,” he says looking towards his father. “I don’t know who the players are now.”
Laurence Bassini, an Arsenal fan from London who owned Watford but who in 2013 was given a three-year ban from being involved in a position of authority with any Football League club, wanted to take over Bolton in April and negotiated with the under-fire then owner, former football agent Ken Anderson.
Agreement was reached for Bassini’s proposed deal, funded by a company owned by West Ham’s vice-chairman David Sullivan, but the sale didn't go through. The club went into administration in May.
Two weeks before the season opened, Bassini tried to explain his side of the story and revive his battered reputation by standing by the statue of Nat Lofthouse outside Bolton’s stadium, which now takes the name of the town’s university, and speaking to fans. He also put out an injunction which stopped the completion of the takeover by Football Ventures, the preferred one of two possible bidders for the football club. The fans hope a takeover is imminent. It is the hope that kills.
Today’s visiting Coventry City fans know only too well how poor ownership can cripple a football club. One of them, Matt Smith, a home and away Sky Blues fan, standing by the turnstiles at the away end tells The National: “Our club has slid because it spent far too much money after relegation from the Premier League on players who weren’t good enough.
"We got into a spiral of debt which required us to be taken over to get an injection of cash. The people who bought us might have thought that they could make a quick buck out of football but it was a downward spiral. They are a hedge fund: they asset strip and try to make money on tight margins. They sold our half of our football ground and then didn’t pay rent for the stadium so we had to go and play games in Northampton.”
That happened in 2010 for a whole season.
“It all led to animosity with the local authority who sold their part of the stadium to a rugby club [Wasps]. Now we have three parties who don’t like or trust each other, with the fans stuck in the middle of the factions," continues Smith.
"We’re playing our home games at Birmingham City this season; we have a cracking manager in Mark Robins. We have a very good team but the infrastructure around it has broken down. There’s smoke and mirrors everywhere. The owners tell us that they will build a new ground, but we should have never left Highfield Road for the vanity project that was the Ricoh Stadium.”
Little is clear.
“Bizarrely, it feels like the owners are investing in the team,” says Smith. “We have a brilliant youth academy. James Maddison and Callum Wilson, both England internationals, came from our academy.”
Further proof of that quality came when Coventry sold Tom Bayliss, 20, to Preston North End for £2m earlier this month.
Six thousand Coventry fans – half the 12,000 who regularly watched the team when they played in their home city last season – have been making the 40-minute journey to Birmingham and create a great atmosphere.
"I was nervous going into the ground, I didn’t like it and I’d refused to go to Northampton when we played there,” says Chris’s wife Clare. “But I went inside and the atmosphere was amazing. I feel a real connection with this team.”
“It’s really weird because we feel we are on the cusp of something good,” her husband adds. “The football is really good and yet there’s massive uncertainty, and mediation is needed between the three parties because the longer this goes on, we’ll sadly see more Man United and Liverpool shirts in Coventry which will ensure the long term decline of our club.”
Apart from a few journalists, Bolton’s main stand is closed for the game.
“I’ve never been to a game where I’ve not known any of the players,” says the man from the BBC as he studies the team sheet.
None of players from the team which was relegated from the Championship are playing, with Bolton’s few remaining contracted players said to be refusing to play because their wages haven’t been paid. Bolton’s final game of last season was postponed after players went on strike over unpaid wages.
Added to the dozen journalists, the crowd of 8,901 including 1,101 visitors, is well down on last season’s 14,636 average, but then the club’s administrators didn’t allow them to sell season tickets as they sought a buyer. And, as already noted, no tickets were allowed to be sold on match day.
But what a roar that crowd make in the rain, with songs of “Wanderers till I die” in support of the superb efforts of their young team.
“What’s refreshing is to see a team of footballers out there representing our football club and being proud to wear that shirt,” says former striker John McGinlay on local radio.
The entertaining encounter ends 0-0 with Bolton picking up more credit since their side, with an average age of 19, is the youngest in the club’s history. The side were prepared for the match by the under-18 coaches since they were more familiar with the players.
Bolton lose their next two matches, conceding five at Rochdale and Tranmere. Before their fifth game, on Tuesday against Doncaster Rovers, the administrators announced: “It is with real regret and a deepening sense of frustration that we have been forced to postpone tomorrow’s fixture.”
The issue is the welfare of their young players, a matter raised by manager Parkinson.
“Nothing can be allowed to impact on the welfare of such a young group of players,” read the statement. “With so many senior players injured or unavailable, the squad has performed heroically and deserves so much credit.
"But after consultation with the club’s medical staff as well as both academy and senior football management, it is obvious that to call on them for another match without an adequate break would be detrimental to both their welfare and development which cannot be allowed.”
The league weren’t happy with Bolton calling off the game without informing them or their opponents. Bolton manager Parkinson has become increasingly frustrated. He just wants to do his job and feels his players have been “hung out to dry” by those responsible for the takeover saga.
“Forget all the lawyers making loads of money out of this situation, the main players in the deal should go somewhere, sit down in a room, and don’t come out until it is sorted,” he told the Bolton News. “It’s as simple as that. I’d imagine we are making some lawyers really, really rich. Sort this situation out."
Few people could argue with Parkinson’s summary of Bolton’s plight.
“We are Bolton Wanderers, one of the founder members of the Football League, and we’ve had enough. It is just unacceptable.”
Updated: August 20, 2019 07:16 PM