Proud folk who can recall when Wanderers were cock of the walk in the fifties, the swaggering seventies with Worthy and Co, White Hot nights at Burnden or a younger generation reared on world beaters like Jay-Jay and Youri, were now worrying if their club would be strangled to death by money and greed, its carcass mounted on the gates of the EFL as a warning against poor football governance.
This founder member of the Football League, four-time FA Cup winners no less, had been reduced to feeding its staff with the help of a food bank, unable to pay for padlocks to be removed from training ground facilities.
Administration was supposed to provide some tough love, a chance to reset debts even if it meant starting the campaign with a 12-point deduction. Instead, the process has dragged on longer than anyone expected, leaving every decision made subject to serious scrutiny.
Is it any wonder that anger built so quickly around the town? Time and time again we were told it would all be okay and that a takeover was close, only for another last-minute hitch to emerge, more excuses to be made.
A chance to talk football has felt miles away but then Saturday’s game was about more than 90 minutes. It will be long remembered as a day when 1,800 Wanderers fans supported their club – not the names on the shirt, or in the dugout – but the one which had been scrawled on classroom desks, bedroom posters and teenage tattoos.
It is a love which had been severely tested during the chaotic reign of Ken Anderson, and arguably over the post-Premier League years when so many bad and self-serving decisions have been made. But this felt like it could be a turning point.
Supporters stood up to tell despot owners, failing authorities, overpaid consultants that this club simply won’t be allowed to die.
And yet, lurking behind an unforgettable afternoon was a dark sub-plot which nearly meant the game did not kick-off at all.
Less than 24 hours before kick-off at Wycombe, Bolton’s players sat in the Whites Hotel unwilling to board the team bus. The proverbial pot which had been bubbling for months was about to boil over.
Wages, which had been unpaid by the club in 22 weeks, had finally been transferred into the players’ accounts but, alas, there was a complication.
Somewhere along the line a deduction had been made, the information on which had either not conveyed to the players or not heeded at all, and the net result was a complete stalemate.
Fingers were pointed, words exchanged. Striker Josh Magennis had already refused to make the trip as he waits to hear of an appeal to have the final year of his contract terminated, allowing him to move on elsewhere.
As tempers flared in Horwich, manager, Phil Parkinson, and his assistant, Steve Parkin, had been meant to meet the team bus en route but instead spent several hours inside a different hotel on the phone to the EFL, administrators and the PFA trying to smooth things over.
In the end, five disgruntled senior players did board the bus. Their involvement in the game was still in question, however, and a potentially embarrassing last-minute postponement was only averted when youth team coaches Nicky Spooner and Gavin McCann ferried a handful of extra players 185 miles to join the group on the morning of the game.
By 10.30am, a team consisting entirely of Under-18s was being considered. An hour later, negotiations with the EFL, coupled with a last-ditch pep talk from Sharon Brittain, the spearhead of the Football Ventures consortium who was also present at the game, paved the way for a semblance of experience to appear on the team-sheet.
Among them ex-Manchester United and Wigan midfielder James Weir, Preston North End loanee Josh Earl and Harry Brockbank – a Bolton academy graduate who had shunned moves to several clubs this summer, training completely unpaid, to stick steadfastly to his dream of continuing at Wanderers.
This had indeed been a team effort. And given the amount of homegrown talent in the squad, special praise is due to staff at the academy who have continued to keep the club’s heart beating in the most trying of circumstances.
Another unsung hero, long-serving club doctor Dave Humphreys, unpaid in several months, made the trip off his own back to ensure the younger players did not run into problems on what was a balmy afternoon.
It is no wonder the cheers were so loud as a stand still slowly filling with fans watched players trot out for the warm-up. Six debuts would be made at kick-off, eight in total over 90 minutes, but there was a team to support and a game to watch. Thoughts were also spared for local rivals Bury, who were not so fortunate.
What happened after that was almost immaterial. Wycombe played on the physical presence of Ade Akinfenwa up front and their greater experience told after a heroic first half in which every clearance, challenge and header was cheered with gusto from behind the Bolton goal.
Had Parkinson been able to play Magennis up front, or even had an extra 24 hours to land a handful more of the free agents who have been training with the club, it might have been a different matter.
Those who did take the field showed they can be a part of the club’s future. Yoan Zouma looks like he could be a popular figure on the terraces – his pace and power impressing against more experienced opposition, while Dennis Politic also showed some touches of class.
The only negatives on a day of celebration came with an early injury to full-back, Earl, who damaged his ankle making a challenge he would not have had to make had the linesman raised his flag for offside 10 seconds earlier.
Wycombe’s opener felt cheap, too, as Remi Matthews raced too far out of his goal to recover a long ball over the top and was bettered by the nimble-footed Paul Smyth.
Sub Fred Onyedimna bundled in a second on debut before a summer of disrupted preparation started to tell and Matthews was called upon to make a string of saves.
The football family has rallied around to help Wanderers in their hour of need and a special mention must go to Wycombe, a team with no obvious connection to Bolton, other than by name.
The Buckinghamshire club enjoyed their best opening day attendance for a decade, and due in no small measure to the welcoming and helpful way they communicated with Bolton’s fans in the build-up, selling away tickets on their behalf.
That classy attitude continued on the day as man-mountain Akinfenwa – the pantomime villain for 90 minutes – showed his appreciation after the final whistle and Chairboys boss Gareth Ainsworth shook the hand of each and every Bolton player as they left the field.
Wycombe even had the good grace to play Dion ‘The Wanderer’ at half time, to make supporters feel right at home.
Watching from the stands were members of the Football Ventures consortium, their takeover still unconfirmed. Sharon Brittan did tell TV cameras on her way into the game that she was “looking forward to speaking to the fans next weekend” as football returns to the UniBol for the visit of Coventry City. Some ownership horror stories can be swapped in that fixture, for sure.
The rumour mill continues to throw up stories of ‘other bidders’ who are looking to secure the hotel as a way into the club, potentially scuppering Brittan and Football Ventures’ plans. Whether they come to fruition is another matter, and one which must be rectified quickly.
Oh for the days when we all we have to occupy thoughts is football, and the following game.
It has been so easy to fall out of love with Wanderers and with football in general of late. The national game is at a worrying financial junction and it seems certain that other clubs will follow their painful route.
This, however, was an occasion which restored some faith.
Bolton Wanderers are still standing. The cast may have changed but the show goes on.