IT is around 20 years ago since Bolton Wanderers left their Burnden Park ground to a shining new stadium at Horwich. By modern standards, it’s not a bad home at all, equipped with the obligatory statue of a club legend, the mighty Nat Lofthouse (pictured) and, unlike some grounds, it has a railway station close by in Horwich Parkway.
Bolton is one of those clubs that has seen better days and is struggling to keep its head above water. In fact, two years ago, the Wanderers were almost totally submerged with financial worries, a club that undoubtedly suffered from over-complication and from living at a level that could not be sustained over the long-term.
Bolton haven’t always been Greater Manchester’s sick relative, though. A founder member of the Football League in 1888, they’ve never won the championship but they have a good FA Cup heritage, winning the competition four times and finishing runners-up on three occasions. I was once lucky to interview a member of the Bolton team that won the cup three times in the 1920s (1923, 1926 and 1929), goalkeeper Dick Pym, which was something of a privilege and pleasure. Pym died a couple of years after I spoke to him.
In modern times, Bolton’s biggest achievement was in maintaining Premier League status for 11 consecutive seasons between 2001-02 and 2011-12, finishing as high as sixth in 2005. Given the club’s proximity to the Manchester giants, this was no mean feat. In 2004, they reached the final of the Football League Cup, losing to Middlesbrough. The club’s last silverware was picked up in the late 1950s, but increasingly, the years between 2003-04 and 2006-07, when the club finished no lower than eighth in the Premier, are being looked upon as something of a golden age, but it all came at a cost.
Behind the façade of the gleaming white Macron (then Reebok) stadium, Bolton’s finances were becoming quite perilous. When the club was relegated from the Premier in 2012, the impact on the balance sheet was immediate – in 2012-13, Bolton recorded a loss of some £ 50m, turnover went down by £30m to £ 28.5m – mainly due to the loss of broadcasting revenues, and attendances dropped by almost 25%. By February 2016, Bolton were almost finished, saved from a winding-up order by the Sports Shield consortium, led by former Bolton striker Dean Holdsworth. The club had been owned for some 13 years by Eddie Davies, a businessman and philanthropist who has a gallery named after him at London’s Victoria & Albert museum. According to media reports, Davies is still owed around £15m by the club.
The most recently announced financial figures by the club reveal that a grand sum of £ 170m owed to Davies’ Fildraw company has been waived, which translates into a profit of £160m-plus for Bolton in 2015-16.
But the after-effect of life in the Premier for a club like Bolton can be catastrophic and as the money ran out and the team fell down the Championship table, a second relegation followed in 2016. But in 2016-17, they won promotion from League One at the first attempt to regain a place in the Championship.
While promotion was undoubtedly a relief for Bolton’s fans, who have remained incredibly loyal despite the club’s fall from grace, the financial position remains a concern, as does the apparent friction between chairman Ken Anderson and Dean Holdsworth.
The latter’s Sports Shield company went into liquidation in August 2017 and Anderson’s Inner Circle Investments acquired its shares to become 95% owners of the club.
Against such a backdrop, the club’s success in 2016-17 was all the more remarkable. Manager Phil Parkinson, who took over in June 2016, succeeding Neil Lennon. Bolton had their best start to a season in over 80 years and the fans stood by the club. Attendances remained stable, although were naturally way off the peak years in the Premier when 25,000 would turn up at the Reebok.
Life back in the second tier of English football has been tough for Bolton, although there are signs that a revival is now underway. In the first 11 games this season, Bolton scored just four goals. Parkinson’s squad, because of a transfer embargo that stretched back to the end of 2015, was strengthened in the summer with a collection of free transfers. In September, Anderson revealed that the embargo had been lifted.
Their first win came on October 14, a 2-1 victory against Sheffield Wednesday at the Marcom and before meeting Norwich City at home on November 4, they had drawn three games, against Fulham and Sunderland away and QPR at home. So they were in better shape when Game of the People visited Bolton.
They were still bottom, however, and Norwich were several places above them, although according to their travelling fans, they had been very unconvincing.
Bolton’s stadium was a little lacking in atmosphere, but you couldn’t fault their loyalty after such a dreadful start to the campaign. The players appeared in good spirit, though, and I was impressed by winger Sammy Ameobi, a 25 year-old picked up from Newcastle, with his awkward dashes down the flank and refusal to yield to the Norwich defenders’ challenges. “Sammy’s one of the reasons we’ve improved in recent weeks,” said the Bolton fan to my right. “Come on Sammy, scare the shit out of them,” he shouted as Ameobi slalomed past the Norwich full back.
Certainly, Bolton didn’t look like a crestfallen team and it was no surprise when they scored in the 35th minute through Gary Madine, who also stood out for the home side. Adam Armstrong added a second on 40 minutes and suddenly, Bolton were brimming with confidence. It wasn’t until added time that Josh Murphy reduced the arrears for Norwich. With a bit more firepower, Norwich might have made things more uncomfortable for Bolton, but the Canaries’ fans travelling back to East Anglia were left fuming over their team’s current form. “We should make changes now, Farke is going to take us down,” said one Norwich regular. “No fight at all – not like Bolton, they’re bottom of the table and they’ve done us.”
Correction, they’re not bottom anymore. That 2-1 win, in front of a crowd of just under 15,000 lifted them one place. They played with a lot of determination – Nat Lofthouse, the Lion of Vienna and known for his big-hearted approach, would doubtless have approved.