The Trotters turn a corner and look forward

BOLTON WANDERERS are one of the grand old names of football, a club that hasn’t always achieved as much as it should have and one that was overtaken by the rise of bigger clubs from bigger cities in the north.  As a founder member of the Football League, and participants in that first campaign of 1888-89, Bolton have never been considered a title-chasing club but have enjoyed considerable success in the FA Cup, notably in the 1920s when they won the competition three times.

But in recent years, Bolton have had a rough time, suffering relegation to the bottom tier of the EFL for only the second time, in 2020. For all their recent problems, Bolton have spent And it is easily forgotten that when they were relegated in 2012, they ended an 11-year stretch in the Premier League, a period which saw them finish in the top half four times, including a top six position in 2005.

However, not many people anticipated that once Bolton were relegated, it would be unlikely to see them bounce back immediately and regain their Premier place. Being part of the elite was never something Bolton could sustain once the bubble had burst.

Many students of the game have feared for Bolton’s future in recent years, notably when their collapse into administration could have seen them expelled from the Football League. Their financial condition was certainly an existential threat.

The plight of Bolton underlined the perils of smaller clubs playing at the highest level and attempting to remain competitive.  Once the riches of the Premier League disappear, unless costs and wages have been reduced dramatically, the cost can be catastrophic for clubs who have come down the other side of a golden period, unless a quick return to the top can be guaranteed, of course.

Bolton’s income fell from £ 58 million in 2012 to £ 28 million in their first season after relegation, but their wage bill, although cut from £ 54 million to £ 36 million, was still 128% of income. By 2015, the club was reputedly £ 173 million in debt and two years on, income had slumped to just £ 8.3 million. In 2019, Bolton went into administration, which came with a 12-point penalty and, consequently, relegation to League Two. 

Bolton were taken over in August 2019 by Football Ventures (Whites) Limited, a group led by Sharon Brittain with involvement from various business people from the worlds of property development and finance. Bizarrely, Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason also had an interest. 

The arrival of Ms Brittain, a dynamic individual, heralded the end of the previous regime and sparked renewed hope at Bolton. She has praised local people for the way they have reacted: “I have been made to feel very welcome here by the fans, the community, the University, the town, and I have met some delightful people through all the challenges and difficult times.”

In 2019-20, the club lost £ 3.9 million, but this was a fraction of the amounts lost in the past. In 2020-21, a lockdown season, Bolton managed to climb back to League One, but the pandemic still impacted the club’s finances – “we lost 70% of our income overnight and that was a huge challenge,” said Brittain.

Bolton’s overall revenues for 2020-21 were down by 34% to £ 6.15 million, but the annual loss was reduced to less than 1.5 million. The club also had half a million pounds in the bank. But the wage bill, at £ 6.9 million, down from £ 7.4 million, was 112% of income. Losses would have been worse but for the government’s furlough scheme

Bolton’s finances remain a little complex and ultimately, the club may continue to need fresh funding from shareholders and owners. They raised £ 4 million via a share issue and £ 12.5 million of loans have been converted to equity.

After finishing ninth in League One in 2021-22, Bolton could make a challenge at the top end of the table and start to think about promotion. The club has the potential to draw decent crowds; they averaged 15,400 in League One in 2021-22, higher than their last Championship season. Moreover, season ticket sales have been buoyant this summer, with 13,000 sold by the end of June, the sort of momentum not seen at Bolton since their Premier League days. They start the 2022-23 season at Ipswich on July 30 and their first home game is on August 6 against Wycombe Wanderers.

Serie A: The creature from the Venetian lagoon rises

VENICE is one of the most iconic cities in the world and attracts 30 million tourists in a normal year. But very few people have ever associated the famous sinking city with football, even though the history of the game in Venice goes back 114 years.

Mention football in the same breath as Venice and it conjures up an image of a ball floating in the lagoon. You wonder if, like Shrewsbury Town’s old riverside ground, a flat-capped man in a boat was ever employed to fish-out stray clearances from the water. 

More recently, Venezia FC have attracted the attention of football hipsters, notably in the US, many of whom fell in love with the club’s very notable orange, green and black shirt. This season’s strip, designed by Kappa, is predominantly black.

Venezia’s link with the US has also included club ownership. In 2015, a group of investors, fronted by celebrity lawyer Joe Tacopino, restarted the club after bankruptcy. Tacopino, with his square jaw and Wall Street slicked-back hair, was something of a larger-than-life figure who loved a soundbite. “Venezia will be a great name in Italian football and then Europe,” he declared. His previous club, Bologna, was also an instant love affair. “The only way I will leave is in a coffin,” he said. But it turned sour at the gastrononomic capital of Italy and he moved to Venice. He had also been with Roma before Bologna. Tacopino is now at Catania, where he has vowed to make them one of the greatest teams in Italy.

In early 2020, Tacopino was removed as Venezia president and Duncan Niederauer was appointed in his place. Niederauer is a former Goldman Sachs banker and was CEO of the New York Stock Exchange. He admits to being on a learning curve and is making no bold predictions about the future. Venezia won promotion to Serie A in 2020-21, returning to the top flight for the first time since 2002, but he appears to be taking a long-term view. “If we don’t succeed in Serie A, that doesn’t mean we’ve failed,” he said, pointing to all the improvements made by the club to their business model, their stadium and training ground.

Even though the unpredictability of European football can be a deterrent for US investors who hanker for closed leagues and a more stable return, Venezia will be one of five Serie A clubs with American backing in 2021-22 – Roma, AC Milan, Spezia and Fiorentina are the others. Niederauer wants to make Venezia into sustainable commercial enterprise with proper budgets and objectives, balancing success on the field with a responsible fiscal approach. Importantly, he has made it clear personal egos cannot get in the way of the club’s progress. 

Everyone at Venezia knows that Serie A will be tough for a club that has come a long way since 2015 when they won Girone C of Serie D, the fourth tier of the Italian game. The following season, they won the North & Central East division of Lega Pro to return to Serie B. They were promoted in 2021 via the play-offs to Serie A, a division they last graced in 2002. Rather uniquely, as befits a team from such a place as Venice, the victors paraded through the canals of the city in a boat to celebrate their success. 

History tells us that it may be a struggle for Venezia. In their history, they have spent 13 seasons in Serie A and since the second world war, whenever they have won promotion, it has been followed by relegation within two years. Aside from their own record, promoted teams in Serie A generally struggle to adapt. In the past decade, 15 of the 30 promoted teams have gone back to Serie B at the first time of asking and another seven have suffered the drop by their third campaign.

They are sure to attract curious visitors to their Stadio Penzo, named after Pierluigi Penzo, a pilot who was involved in a rescue operation in the north pole in 1928 but never returned home as his plane struck some power lines in France and crashed into the Rhone river. Penzo drowned and was rightly pronounced a hero across Italy. Venezia will play away while some changes are being made to the ground.

The club has shown it is very much of its time – they hired an analytics expert to enhance their scouting efforts (echoes of moneyball) and also an “artist in residence”, a rather unusual role, but one very much aligned to Venezia’s taste for the aesthetic.

The club has been adding to coach Paolo Zanetti’s squad in the build-up to the 2021-22 season. They attempted to sign a trio of young players from Inter Milan and most of their new arrivals have been based on potential. Tanner Tessmann (19) cost Venezia € 3.6 million from Major League Soccer side Dallas, while Arnór Sigurdsson (CSKA Moscow), Daan Heymans (Waasland-Beveren) and David Schnegg (LASK) are all 22. Venezia have managed to keep leading scorer Francesco Forte, a 28 year-old Roman who scored 15 goals in 2020-21. He’s currently on a three-year contract. The club was hoping to persuade Inter striker Sebastiano Esposito to join them again on loan after playing for Venezia in the second half of 2020-1, but he has joined Basel.

Can Venezia compete in Serie A alongside the powerful northern clubs, Juve and the Milan duo? They start their league programme on August 22 in Naples and don’t play at home until late September when they host Spezia. Moreover, can they attract the crowds to their limited stadium? When they were last in Serie A, Venezia drew attendances of less than 8,500 but in recent years, gates of 3,500 have been commonplace. But if I Lagunari (the lagoonal ones) get it right, they could tap into the many visitors to their historic home, and the narrative around Venice may be less about sinking, but more of a football city on the rise.

Photo: TeaMeister CC-BY-2.0