Hard times are nothing new at this club. Through the post-powerhouse era in the sixties, talented players like Franny Lee, Paul Fletcher and Freddie Hill were pawned off to pay looming bills, and the dark days of the eighties saw Nat Lofthouse appeal to fans to dig deep and stop the club going under. But this was pre-Premier League, when player-manager John McGovern could make a difference to the coffers by running a sponsored half-marathon, and the thought of numerous High Court visits, administration and liquidation seemed very far away indeed.
The debts Bolton had run up during a glorious run in the top-flight between 2001 and 2012 may have been largely, and benevolently wiped by late owner Eddie Davies, but the legacy was still a complicated and hugely expensive one.
Wanderers were sold in 2016 to ex-player, Dean Holdsworth, and ex-agent, Ken Anderson, but their relationship disintegrated quickly, and on March 17, 2017, the latter struck out alone in the hope of selling the club on for profit. A little under 800 days later, Bolton became the first EFL member in six years to go into administration.
By the turn of 2019 the cracks were already deep in Anderson’s wafer-thin foundations.
Phil Parkinson had guided Wanderers to promotion in 2017 and to a most unlikely last-day escape from relegation 12 months later but already bore the hallmarks of a man who knew the writing was on the wall as his team were lashed 6-0 by Hull City on New Year’s Day.
Fans had little reason to debate football in a year where finances have been at the forefront of everyone’s thinking, but the manager’s pragmatic and unadventurous style was universally unpopular, even though some accepted there were underlying reasons for all that.
Bolton, and Parkinson, had spent cash on just one player – Northern Irishman Josh Magennis, who arrived the previous summer for £200,000 from Charlton. A £1million fee for another front man, Christian Doidge, was due in January after a four-month loan but when Forest Green Rovers publicly outed Anderson’s questionable actions in the deal, Doidge returned to League Two and a very decisive blow was struck to the Bolton owner’s image across football. It would not be the last.
Thousands of fans rallied outside the stadium in protest at his ownership on January 22 before a televised game against West Brom. A clear message had been sent to the owner that his actions would not be tolerated, and the swathes of empty seats vacated by season ticket holders told their own tale.
Talk of Anderson selling up to foreign investors was commonplace. His regular, discursive ‘web-notes’ would often fuel such speculation but as the months wore on, their impact as a means for communication was lost entirely. The owner’s image, which accompanied each web article, looked more malevolent with every passing week.
But by February a glimmer of hope arrived. A consortium collectively known as ‘Football Ventures’ struck a deal to buy the club in principle, subject to due diligence. This sparked celebration inside the camp where concerns over late pay, or erratic payments, had already been raised by players and staff.
The Bolton News confirmed on March 15 that Football Ventures had pulled out. Though the protagonists kept their own counsel, it was known that inspection of the club’s finances had revealed several million pounds of unexpected debts, which left the deal impossible to complete.
By March, Wanderers had bought themselves extra time after appearing in the High Court to defend a tax and VAT bill owed to HMRC. The presence of former Watford owner, Laurence Bassini, in court as a potential buyer provided enough scope for a two-week adjournment of the case.
Whether at that stage Bassini’s presence was geared towards buying more time, or the prelude to serious negotiations is up for debate. Yet within weeks Anderson was touting the London-based property developer among other “interested parties” in an effort to sell once more.
As the battles wore on in the courtrooms and paperwork was batted to and from solicitors’ offices, there was there was nothing to cheer the masses on the field. Aside from a 5-2 victory against Walsall in the FA Cup, in which Magennis became the first Bolton player to score a hat-trick since Joe Mason in 2015, there were only three other triumphs in the league, which made relegation inevitable.
Parkinson ceased to speak as a football manager, his time almost exclusively used up coercing players to turn out on a matchday as, by now, Anderson had ceased to pay regular salaries.
On several occasions, training sessions were abandoned as answers were sought on when players would be paid. Funding for essentials had dried up to such an extent that physio staff had to buy their own medical supplies, catering staff bought food from cash whip-rounds, line paint was donated by Atherton Colls to ensure Under-23s games could go ahead and players were being told they could not get antibiotics as Bolton had not paid their pharmacy account.
The Professional Footballer’s Association provided what assistance they could, though like the EFL they remained frustratingly unwilling to break ranks and issue statements until the situation had escalated way beyond control.
Anderson’s negotiations with Bassini – who was said to be backed by money supplied by West Ham owner David Sullivan – reached a zenith with the signing of a sale and purchase agreement on April 17.
Within days, Bassini was calling shots with staff and was even serenaded by away fans during an appearance in the directors’ box at Blackburn Rovers.
Outgoing EFL chief executive Shaun Harvey had already blotted his copybook with Bolton for backing Anderson in an interview with TalkSport and claiming that supporters had a “lot to thank him for.”
But with Wanderers now in serious financial peril, the league’s role in sanctioning Anderson – a man who had, after all, been banned for eight years from being a company director in September 2005 – was now very much under the microscope.
Bassini had previously been bankrupted and so there was a sense that the league wanted to be doubly sure. Despite continuous protestation, the EFL remained unmoved by his business plan for the club.
It was here that the story takes its first really macabre turn. Bassini began broadcasting that he, and not Anderson, was in charge, which prompted huge upset and confusion among stadium and playing staff.
Wanderers’ relegation was confirmed on April 19 with defeat against Aston Villa but seven days later a statement was issued via The Bolton News from the first team squad which signalled that strike action would be taken, and the following day’s game against Brentford would be cancelled.
On the final day at Nottingham Forest, a fragmented squad turned up at the City Ground having been begged to do so by their manager. And as if to raise the chaos stakes further, security guards in the directors’ suite had been told that Bassini was, under no circumstances, allowed access.
Mud slinging continued between Anderson and Bassini, by which time it had become necessary for the Bolton Wanderers Community Trust to open a food bank for unpaid staff at the football club and hotel to access essential provisions.
Anderson launched one final jet of bile into the ether on May 8, incredibly at the same time the club was seeking another adjournment at the High Court.
On May 13 the club officially entered into administration under the eye of David Rubin and Partners. Paul Appleton would become the public face of the club’s temporary custodians, and the experienced legal practitioner would later remark that selling Wanderers was one of the hardest things he had ever been tasked to do.
Football Ventures had re-shaped their line-up but were still led by Sharon Brittan, who had set her heart on owning a football club from the age of 15.
Achieving her dream was by no means simple but was eased slightly by the fact one of the major creditors, lifelong fan Michael James, was on her board.
To put into context the debts owed, an administrators’ report detailed £25m of debt to creditors, including £2.75m to players and coaching staff. An offer of 35 pence in the pound was made to unsecured creditors.
Satisfying the demands of Anderson and the trust of former owner Davies was hard enough – but made all the more complicated by continual legal challenges from Bassini, who claimed the SPA signed in April was, to use his phrase, “bulletproof”.
Administrators accused Bassini of making “threatening calls and emails” at which point he took to the grounds in front of the stadium with a megaphone to voice his side of the story.
Administrators had initially targeted a sale by mid-July when players returned to the training ground for the new League One season. But gates and offices remained padlocked, generators inactive as the expected return date came and went.
Parkinson and his staff had agreed to help prepare pre-season but some had reached the stage where they could not afford petrol to drive into work, and were forced to take labouring jobs closer to home to pay their bills.
Several trialists came in, hoping a takeover would bring some stability and a contract. But aside from a couple of behind-closed-doors friendlies, warm-up matches were either cancelled or contested with youth team players.
The likes of Sammy Ameobi and Pawel Olkowski tore up their contract, while others like Erhun Oztumer found their path blocked by administrators. Luca Connell forced through a move to Celtic for a £200,000 fee which hardly reflected his burgeoning talent.
Though staff wages had been restored in the administration process, the lack of ready cash left players in a very difficult situation.
Even on the first day of the season, Parkinson held a team meeting at the Bolton Whites Hotel before boarding the bus in an effort to avoid a strike. Several players – by this point unpaid in five months – eventually travelled to Wycombe but striker Magennis refused, and would soon sign for Hull City.
In what would be a defining decision, the EFL allowed Wanderers to play their game at Adams Park AND register a few new players. Neighbours Bury, themselves in the thick of a takeover wrangle, were told they could not play until the situation was remedied.
Perhaps the foundation for interim EFL chief Debbie Jevans’ optimism over Bolton being able to fulfil their fixtures was the fact Football Ventures were the cusp of a deal, their business plan backed wholeheartedly.
On August 8 a press release announcing them as the new owners had been prepared for launch. At The Bolton News, several pages had been cleared to mark the end of a chaotic chapter but the expected celebrations were put on hold.
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Bassini – who had vowed to come after Anderson in the courts over their SPA agreement – gained a court injunction which appeared to prohibit the sale.
It emerged in court a week later that the wording of the injunction, somewhat hurriedly reported to the Jewish Telegraph, was not actually the roadblock it appeared to be. Nevertheless, it was enough to convince Football Ventures’ legal team to step away and survey the next move.
The uncertainty proved a last straw for Wanderers’ remaining senior players – around half a dozen in number – who withdrew their services. The youngest-ever Bolton team, with an average age of under-19, turned out at home against Coventry City to fight out a memorable 0-0 draw.
Though a second court hearing clarified Football Ventures’ claim, the fact Anderson was still vulnerable to legal recourse meant the previous agreement was effectively ripped up and forced to start again.
Wanderers’ precarious position meant matchday staff, police and medical officers were also demanding assurances, and it became commonplace for games to remain hanging in the balance until the Safety Advisory Group (SAG) were convinced things could go ahead.
All the while, Wanderers were hugely exposed on the pitch. They conceded 20 goals in four league and cup games and the strain placed on Under-16s and 18s players proved such a concern to medical staff at the club they sought unsuccessfully to postpone the game at Tranmere, then took matters into their own hands a few days later when scheduled to play Doncaster Rovers.
After Liam Edwards broke down in a League Cup tie at Rochdale, it became clear that younger players were not physically able to play two games in a week – a view backed-up by the EPPP’s handbook.
The postponement was announced rather haphazardly, and in the midst of Darren Moore’s press conference previewing the Bolton game. As such, Doncaster’s angry response can perhaps be understood.
The EFL took a dim view. They had tried unsuccessfully to rearrange the Brentford game in April – rejecting the offer of playing behind closed doors or at an alternate venue – and their decision to allow Bolton to start the season was being questioned throughout football.
Parkinson resigned on August 22. His frustration with the takeover delay had only just begun to spill over but the separation felt as if it had been well-timed.
The league finally got tough on August 27, giving Bolton 14 days to complete their takeover or face expulsion. Perversely, Bolton finally sorted their situation on the same day that Bury were cast out, having seen a late takeover bid fall flat.
Time was not on Football Ventures’ side and within a few days they had to appoint a manager and build a squad.
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Keith Hill and fellow Boltonian David Flitcroft got the nod and just 48 hours later they were paraded in front of the media having made an unprecedented nine signings on deadline day.
Facing a league table that showed Wanderers on minus 11 points, owing to their administration deduction from the EFL, there were few in football who felt the season could be rescued.
But while it has not gone perfectly – a 6-1 defeat at Rotherham and a 7-1 hammering at Accrington hammering home the point this is a team in transition – there has been plenty to admire about Hill’s positivity and insistence that Bolton will now play a brand of football which represents the values of their supporters.
Hill’s naturally brash and verbose style has ruffled a few feathers but both he and Flitcroft make a knowledgeable and hugely likeable pair who have come to personify a new ownership intent on bringing a sense of community back to the town’s club.
Nobody could go through the ordeal that Bolton have without leaving scars. And as such, the job Football Ventures and Hill have inherited is still a clean-up operation.
Relegation to League Two has been predicted by all and sundry, yet performances on the pitch have improved, new heroes have emerged, and the club that stands before us today is now showing green shoots of recovery.
There are still battles to be fought off-the-pitch as the EFL appeal suspended points deductions as well as those on it.
Hill is fond of throwing musical references into his press conferences so it seems fitting to wrap up this year by doing the same. Wanderers are Alive and Kicking, so Don’t Look Back in Anger.
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