I would like to say 2019 has been an exciting one in which to cover Bolton Wanderers but despite the professional buzz those big stories provided, the fact good people were put through such misery over such a prolonged period means any plaudits that came my way for the coverage feel a little hollow.
The click-counters on The Bolton News’ website may disagree – but I’d have swapped the last 12 months for ones recounting calf strains and corner kicks any day of the week.
Following Wanderers up and down the country has also been made less pleasurable by the fact our good mate, BBC Radio Manchester commentator Jack Dearden, has been side-lined for the last few months as he fights throat cancer.
It has been wonderful to see him make a few appearances back in the studio over the last few weeks and, touch wood, we will welcome him back to the UniBol in 2020 en route to a recovery.
It seems a long time ago now, but I started this year as persona non grata at Wanderers, with Ken Anderson having taken the decision in mid-December to ban me from the stadium.
I think it is safe to say now that reasonable people within the club had advised him and Paul Aldridge that it would be a big PR own goal, and it proved exactly that.
Even though we had been rapping at the door asking questions about the club’s deteriorating finances, the ban brought national attention, and it wasn’t long before the whole blasted thing was off its hinges.
By January, John McGinlay had joined me on the ‘naughty step’ as he became the public face of the fans’ protests against the owner, who to the best of my knowledge never again set foot inside the UniBol.
Thankfully, the exclusion did not apply to away games and though club staff, including manager Phil Parkinson, were instructed not to speak with me it was quite incredible how many still did. The paper’s coverage of the club was hardly affected at all – and in a bland matter-of-fact statement a month later Anderson climbed down.
Not that watching Bolton away from home has been particularly encouraging. There have been plenty of low points, the tone set by a 6-0 pounding against Hull City on New Year’s Day. Kamil Grosicki was unplayable – but I’m still peeved that David Meyler’s knee-high challenge on Jem Karacan was not punished with a red card a few minutes in.
Bristol City followed, twice. A curious twist of fate saw Bolton paired with the Robins in the cup a week after they were beaten 2-1 at Ashton Gate – a stadium now completely unrecognisable from the one it used to be and now one of the best outside the Premier League.
Going down to Brizzle also gave me a chance to say hello to ex-Wanderer, Dean Holden, who always pops into the press room for a chat pre-match. Great bloke, and from what I hear, a very good coach as well.
Sheffield United were the next on the list. Bramall Lane remains one of my favourite places in football, having lived in its shadow for a good few years. This trip was made memorable by a pre-match breakfast with Jack and Alan Gowling at a posh pub on Ecclesall Road, which made all those greasy spoons he has dragged me to down the years worth it.
We got a rare win at Birmingham City in February, after which myself, Jack and McGinlay somehow ended up driving round Wolverhampton looking for a petrol that was still open. Now, if there is one person you don’t want in the car with you in that city, it’s Super John, but thankfully under cover of darkness we managed to smuggle him back down the motorway without serious incident.
After a sun-kissed but relatively uneventful defeat at Leeds, we travelled to Swansea – a trip I definitely wasn’t going to forget in a hurry.
Driving through the Welsh countryside with a view to staying in a hotel on the Friday night, me and Jack had no idea that things were about to go mad. About lunchtime, I received an email forwarded from someone I knew at the club in which Anderson had called for “continued patience” from unpaid staff. No hint of an apology, no sense of when the situation would be solved.
Then the phone calls started.
By the time we’d reached South Wales I must have spoken to a dozen different people, all livid with the way they had been treated.
Just a week earlier, then-EFL chief Shaun Harvey had launched a defence of the Bolton owner, claiming history would treat him kindly. Ten months on, I re-read the email and still cannot believe the games he played with people’s emotions.
The trip back was worse. I had done my normal trick of jumping in the back seat, flipping open the laptop and jumping headfirst into work. I looked up an hour later to see signs for Colwyn Bay… Jack had gone the wrong way.
I don’t miss many Bolton games but as my colleague Mike Glendinning will tell you, I tend to miss the eventful ones.
As Wanderers were beaten 5-2 at Wigan and 2-1 at QPR I was enjoying a 40th birthday holiday with my wife in Mexico. Yes, it was a holiday punctuated with 4am phone calls, player statements sent from beach BBQs and High Court updates from the other side of the world, but Mrs Iles is a trooper, thankfully.
Derby was another dismal defeat. I will say this of Pride Park, though, its coffee shop serves the best sausage roll I’ve ever eaten.
Blackburn used to be a game you’d circle in the calendar but the visit in March felt sad, somehow. Already relegated, there was no spice to the occasion whatsoever. The one thing that will stick in my mind is a section of Bolton’s away supporters singing the name of Laurence Bassini – who was sat in the directors’ box during the game.
On arriving at the next away ground, Nottingham Forest, my first conversation was with a burly security guard posted on the VIP entrance who had been told, in no uncertain terms, not to let Mr Bassini enter the building.
When players started arriving in their own cars and a virtual youth team stepped off the team bus I knew there were issues. Phil Parkinson did well to get a team out that day but it was the first time I honestly thought he’d had enough too. I left the City Ground thinking that by the time things resumed in League One I’d be speaking to a different manager.
Fast forward three months of complete and utter misery, and an increasingly haunted Parkinson was pleading with players to get aboard the team bus to Wycombe on the opening day.
I had spent a few days on the South Coast with my family, so drove up to Adams Park on the Saturday half-expecting the game to be cancelled altogether.
Players had boarded the bus and stayed overnight but with the takeover still up in the air there was no telling what the team would be. The EFL – some would say unwisely – said Bolton’s game could go ahead while Bury, who were also in the midst of an ownership nightmare, were told they had to stay put.
New signings Josh Earl and James Weir dropped in at the last second but Wanderers were severely under-prepared after a pre-season beset with problems.
It didn’t get much better over the next couple of weeks. Five goals were leaked by a baby-faced team at Rochdale, Tranmere then Gillingham. And it was travelling home from the latter that I had another massive story drop at precisely the wrong moment.
As anyone who has travelled into and around London on the train will know, phone reception is patchy at best. So when me and Jack found out at Gillingham train station that Bolton would be naming their new manager that evening, all hell broke loose.
Rumours had been bouncing around that Sky Sports had proclaimed Kevin Nolan ‘the next Bolton Wanderers manager’ that afternoon – so my focus was on trying to text Nobby and find out what was happening.
Jack, frantically tapping away at his phone beside me when service would allow, was trying the other leading contender, Keith Hill.
With Bolton fans crammed in around us and asking what was going on the investigation continued until we’d nearly reached St Pancras, at which point the ever-reliable Nolan texted me back to say: “Not me, pal.”
Seconds later, Wanderers launched their announcement. It was Hill.
I bundled out of the train, sat smack bang in the middle of Platform 11 and started to type like there was no tomorrow. Ever the pro, Jack pulled out his tape recorder and started to ask Bolton fans exiting the train what they thought of the appointment.
If anyone is under the illusion that football journalism is a luxurious business, then the image of me sweating profusely as I ran to London Euston whilst trying to sort out the breaking story should be ample evidence that it is not.
I’m sorry to say that was the last trip me and Jack shared – but I am equally sure it will not be the last.
Rotherham was a bright new dawn. New owners, new manager, new line-up after a sensational transfer deadline day. I remember the roar from the Wanderers fans as Thibaud Verlinden put the Whites into an early lead… But not a lot else. The mind works in mysterious ways.
After what seemed like three years of long hours logging the back and forth between Ken Anderson and Dean Holdsworth, then Ken Anderson and myself, then Ken Anderson and Laurence Bassini, I was delighted that the Football Ventures was finally able to add some sanity.
As I said to Sharon Brittan on the first day I met here: "I honestly don't know whether to interview you or just hug you." Thankfully, she knew where I was coming from.
It was also lovely to read some of the messages from Bolton fans who realised it had been a slog. Even better, one anonymous fan dropped off some flowers for my long-suffering wife, who by now scowled at the very mention of the words "club statement."
There are some good folk out there, that's for sure.
Portsmouth was a thoroughly enjoyable trip spent in the company of Bolton Evening News alumni Andy Buckley, who was doing the game for the BBC. Biblical downpours meant the journey back was a tense one.
Those Junior Whites did the club proud again at Rochdale in the Leasing.com Trophy, albeit the home side won on penalties.
A couple of weeks later I watched Wanderers romp to victory at Bristol Rovers. I’d love to say I enjoyed the game but it was spent sandwiched in a ridiculously small press box with BBC Radio Manchester’s Liam Bradford – a strapping lad who has done a cracking job with Bolton since Jack had to step back from commentary duties.
The 7-1 at Accrington was a surreal experience. After the final whistle I decided to let the disgruntled away fans filter out completely before I made my way home – so sat in the press box listening to hundreds of people having a whale of a time drinking pound-a-pint ale.
The returning match in the cup a few weeks later was just as miserable. I got soaked stood waiting outside the stadium for my ticket – and then suffered Accrington’s equivalent of Chinese water torture via a steady drip from the roof for the rest of the night.
As I write this, the last trip was Peterborough, the first stadium I can remember which had real life reindeer outside. The journey home had a 90s britpop soundtrack that I don’t think met with Alan Gowling’s appreciation. Obviously more of a new wave or disco type of guy.
And so ends another self-indulgent, space-filling feature which I hopes gives you a small window into the weird and wonderful world of covering Bolton Wanderers. It is a pleasure, I assure you, even in the hardest of times...
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