Twelve years ago, a late Kevin Davies equalizer at the Allianz Arena sealed a 2-2 draw that saw Bolton Wanderers knock then four-time European champions Bayern Munich out of the UEFA Cup. Now, just four weeks away from the start of the 2019/20 season on August 3rd, the club is in administration with no owners and just five senior outfield players – three midfielders and two strikers ensuring they couldn’t even field a balanced five-a-side team. To make matters worse, Bolton Wanderers will begin the campaign in the third tier of English football on -12 points.
This is the short story of how one of the English FA’s founding members fell so hard, with no obvious light at the end of the tunnel.
The good times
Last week I discovered a DVD reviewing the season that Bolton first qualified for Europe back in 2005 lurking in my collection. That team ruffled the feathers of Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United and more, with players like Gary Speed, Jay-Jay Okocha, Fernando Hierro and cult heroes Henrik Pedersen and El-Hadji Diouf making it fun to be a Bolton fan. That crop of players came within three points of qualifying for the Champions League, then signings like Hidetoshi Nakata and Nicolas Anelka saw the club qualify for Europe again in 2006/7. But Bolton’s board failed to back the lofty ambitions of manager Sam Allardyce – and that’s when the troubles began.
Hard times hit Bolton
A series of failed managers followed Allardyce, including Sammy Lee and Gary Megson. While a diabolical 5-0 FA Cup semi-final defeat to Stoke City in 2011, a serious injury to key midfielder Stuart Holden and Fabrice Muamba’s cardiac arrest in a cup match at Tottenham Hotspur in March 2012 contributed to the club spiralling into decline. Two months after the Muamba episode, Bolton were relegated from the Premier League after an 11-year stay. And a failure to qualify for the Championship play-offs at the first attempt saw financial ruin kick in as the club failed to get high paid Premier League earners off its books for several years.
By 2016, Bolton had racked up £172.9 million-worth of debt, which former owner Eddie Davies wrote off when Ken Anderson – who had been banned from being a company director, let alone running a football club, for eight years in 2005 – took control. Fans dreamt of a new beginning, but the reality was several winding-up petitions from HMRC, multiple unpaid debts to the local council, utility suppliers and other football clubs. A two-year transfer embargo also followed, during which the club was relegated to the third tier of the English football for the first time in 23 years then somehow got promoted at the first attempt.
A dramatic last day survival courtesy of unlikely hero Aaron Wilbraham 12 months ago only delayed the inevitable, as Wanderers were again relegated from The Championship in May. This time they did so in record-breaking fashion, suffering the club’s most defeats (30) and most home defeats (15), scoring the least home goals (13) and tied the record for least home wins (4) in a single league campaign. They even failed to play their final home match of the season against Brentford after players and staff went on strike over unpaid wages.
The writing was on the wall when players boycotted a pre-season friendly last summer over unpaid bonuses. Anderson has repeatedly broken promises to the fans – who protested against him in January – and was only every interested in trying to make money for himself. The result was dragging the club to the all-time low of its entire existence being at the mercy of a High Court judge over unpaid debts back in April.
New owners seem imminent at Bolton, but it has taken weeks for the pending consortium to agree a deal with the incumbent administrators – and they’re going to have a huge task on their hands when the deal finally goes through. Last season’s players haven’t been paid since February, while it’s unclear whether staff have been paid and whether other debts still hang over the club. Plus, they’ll have the small matter of having less than a month to build a squad capable of overcoming a 12-point deficit and competing in League One.
That Kevin Davies goal in Munich amid the era of taking on Europe’s elite seems like aeons ago, and it seems impossible for Bolton Wanderers to ever rise to those heady heights again. The good news is that there is still a club there for fans to support, but what state that club is going to be in is anybody’s guess
Post By Rob Latham (@robilaz)
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