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26th Aug 2019

Bolton’s slide to brink of liquidation one of English football’s saddest stories

Simon Lloyd

Bolton find themselves on the brink of extinction

Such is the nature of Bolton Wanderers’ plight, much has changed since last Tuesday. Their League One meeting with Doncaster Rovers postponed the previous day, some of Bolton’s weary fanbase did at least get to see a football match that evening.

Atherton Collieries, a local non-league side with which Bolton share more than a few connections, promptly offered their supporters free admission to the game with Warrington Town. Many of the 640 in attendance at the Skuna Stadium had taken up the offer.

“It was the least we could do,” Joe Gibbons, a member of Colls’ committee, told JOE on the night.

“We know a lot of the people that watch Colls are Bolton fans, myself and most of the committee included. We’re only a small club and we can’t do much, but at least this is a bit of a distraction from all that’s going on and a chance to watch a bit of football for free.”

Over the years, young players released by Bolton have often been pointed in the direction of Colls. Bolton’s Ladies side also play their home matches at the Skuna Stadium.

Danny Lafferty, Colls’ current captain, is also an ardent Wanderers supporter, only relinquishing the season ticket he held since he was five when his own playing commitments prevented him from attending games.

“The situation there is well beyond a joke now,” he told JOE ahead of kick-off against Warrington. “You think of the team and the players they had when they were in the Premier League compared to the state they’re in now and it’s unbelievable.

“It’s really hard to take, actually.”

The extent of Bolton’s troubles were already clear by the time their relegation from the Championship had been confirmed in April. Owner Ken Anderson failed to pay staff their February salary on time with a similar situation prompting the first team squad to stage a 48-hour strike from training in late March. The crisis deepened with the postponement of their final home game of the season – players refusing to play the fixture against Brentford over more unpaid wages.

The club were placed in administration in May after a takeover attempt by Laurence Bassini failed to materialise due to his failure to provide proof of necessary funds. This development ensured they would begin life in the third tier of English football with a 12-point deduction. With a mass exodus of senior players over the summer and talk of a takeover attempt by the Football Ventures consortium stalling, supporters faced an anxious wait to see if Bolton would be in a position to start the season. Eventually receiving clearance from the EFL, they did so with a severely depleted squad.

With remaining senior members of the squad still not paid in full, only reassurances from the prospective new owners convinced them to play their opening fixture away at Wycombe, where Phil Parkinson was forced to field inexperienced youngsters to fill in any blanks. Their defeat in Buckinghamshire was no shock; that it had only been 2-0 was.

“You accept as a Wanderers supporter that things don’t always go to plan on the pitch, but that should be where it stops,” said John as he queued for his pre-match portion of pie and peas at the Skuna.

“I saw my first Bolton game at Burnden Park over 40 years ago. What’s happened this year has been awful – worse than anything I’ve seen since that game.

“I miss the days where the only worries were if we were going down, or if we were going to get stuffed by Man United.”

Bolton fans were afforded brief respite in an otherwise wretched year during their first home game of the season. More uncertainty had preceded the visit of Coventry City when Bassini, despite his failed takeover attempt, was granted a court order blocking the club’s sale to Football Ventures just as it had appeared imminent.

Unnerved by this, Bolton’s senior players were unsure whether they should play in the game, prompting Parkinson to name the youngest starting lineup in the club’s history. Miraculously, a team of youngsters with an average age of just 19 were roared on to a 0-0 draw by 9,000 Wanderers fans.

“It was the most emotionally invested I’ve been in a Bolton game since we were relegated from the Premier League in 2012,” Gibbons says. “Seeing so many young lads – our own young lads, from Bolton – giving their all in such dire circumstances was a real proud moment for all of us.”

The high didn’t last. Though the same side of youngsters led 2-1 in a League Cup game at Rochdale three days later, they shipped four goals in the final 25 minutes. Parkinson was able to call on three senior players for the visit to Tranmere Rovers the next weekend, but a 5-0 defeat proved to be the final straw. Fully aware such action would likely bring further sanctions from the EFL, Bolton opted to postpone the Doncaster amidst concerns for the welfare of their young players.

As Colls game drew to a close with Warrington Town claiming a 4-2 victory, Chris, another lifelong Wanderers supporter explained how his disillusionment at his own club’s demise over the last 12 months has seen him attend Colls games more regularly. Others, he suggests, may have done the same.

“The gesture tonight has been a nice touch from Colls,” he said. “I know a lot of Bolton fans who come regularly now. I sometimes wonder if that’s because they feel the same way I do.

“It’s not that I don’t care, I just feel helpless, like it doesn’t belong to me any more.”

“It can’t get worse,” he added, eyes fixed on the final moments of action on the Skuna Stadium’s sloping pitch. “I keep thinking that, but then it does.”

Not even a week on, Chris’ words are all the more poignant.

The news that Bassini’s court order was adjourned until September 2 came before the Tranmere defeat, clearing the way for Football Ventures to finalise their takeover. While this could be viewed by some Bolton’s supporters as cause for cautious optimism, the experiences of the last few months have clearly taken their toll on many of them.

Within 24 hours of the game at Atherton, Phil Parkinson had resigned as Bolton manager. On Saturday came another 5-0 hammering for their inexperienced youngsters, this time at home to Ipswich Town.

Then, on Monday, came the worst news yet: a statement from Paul Appleton, the club’s joint-administrator, revealed the Football Ventures deal to buy Bolton had collapsed on Saturday morning, leaving them on the brink of liquidation.

“Unless there is a change of position from any of the parties involved, the process of closing down the club and ultimately placing Bolton Wanderers into liquidation will begin this week,” the statement warned.

A deadline of 17:00 on Tuesday has been set for a sale to be completed in time to avoid expulsion from the Football League, but with administrators saying the club is in no position to continue trading, the liquidation process could begin on Wednesday.

The hours to come will be decisive. Should the deal fail to be resurrected, the death of this proud, 145-year-old club – one that soared as high as a sixth place finish in the Premier League as recently as 14 years ago; one that held Bayern Munich in their own stadium in 2007 – will be confirmed, one of the saddest tales in the history of English football.