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Bolton Wanderers fans hit one year away from the UniBol

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse

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Just over 12,000 people gathered at the UniBol to see a nondescript Lancashire derby a year ago not realising just how lucky they were.

The date was February 29, itself somewhat of an anomaly. Chilly Bolton fans gathered in the concourses and queued for a pre-match pie and pint, muttering displeasure at five previous defeats, the latest of which had arrived on a bitterly cold Tuesday night at Blackpool with the last kick of the game.

Virtually nobody was happy, and if the frustration was not aimed towards management team Keith Hill and David Flitcroft, it was certainly focussed on the collection of ne’er-do-wells who had left Bolton high and dry in the years and months prior.

Perhaps only briefly did the conversation turn to the wider world, and the spectre of a mysterious virus which had been noticed in China and had very recently started to make headlines in the UK.

The hardy few who made the journey to London the following weekend to watch the Whites at Wimbledon would see the first signs of a population in panic but as Middlebrook buzzed with shoppers and the hospitality boxes bustled with the sound of chatter and cutlery there was not a facemask to be found. Social distancing was what Bolton’s defence had done at Bloomfield Road to allow Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall to score a 92nd-minute winner.

The season, for all intent and purpose, was already over for Wanderers. The club had kicked off with a 12-point penalty for going into administration three months earlier but had spent the formative weeks of the campaign on the edge of a precipice as an on-off takeover put it 24 hours from going out of business completely.

Sharon Brittan and Football Ventures got there in the end and though there were smiles of relief all round, the reality of the situation they bought into was not a pleasant one. A club which had been skinned to the bone had precious little but a famous name and its history – and Accrington’s visit coincidentally came on the 16th anniversary of their last major final, the 2004 League Cup.

Boltonians Hill and Flitcroft were appointed as a nod to the owners’ intention to make Wanderers a source of local pride again. They had effectively assembled a squad in 48 hours without being able to spend a penny but the goodwill they were granted on arrival quickly ran out, and by February the pair must have been willing the season away.

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Briefly at the end of 2019 a miracle looked possible but it had been a 7-1 hammering against Accrington on a gloomy November afternoon, the air thick with flare smoke and beery breath, which shattered the dream.

Remi Matthews had been the goalkeeper on the unfortunate end of that result and he gained a personal measure of revenge by keeping Stanley at bay here, including a quite brilliant late save from Jordan Clark which spared another agonising defeat.

Few players had been through the mill quite like Matthews, one of a small handful who had stuck with Bolton from the Championship days. He had no way of knowing his late heroics would be almost his last, as the season would soon grind to a premature halt.

“Jordan Clark, I do believe he is the best winger in League One by a country mile,” said manager Hill after the final whistle. “He has had one brilliant chance but it was a brilliant save at the death, right before the final whistle.

“I was heartbroken Tuesday, I would have been worse there. It was a magnificent save and he was in there to do that. We looked a little bit fatigued, a little bit raggy, and I am so glad Remi saved it.”

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Post-match comments from the supporters were unforgiving. Though Matthews got some begrudging praise – not always the case in his time with Bolton – some pointed out as they walked back out into the frosty night that being happy with a goalless draw against Accrington Stanley said plenty about how far the club had fallen. At that point, 2020 said: “Hold my beer”.

Bolton supporters have not set foot through the turnstiles again to this day.

As the seriousness of the global situation started to dawn, football carried on regardless.

By the time Wanderers went to Burton on March 10 there was already talk that the next home game against Peterborough United could be put on hold.

Liverpool would travel to Atletico Madrid 24 hours later and – more unbelievably – the Cheltenham Festival was watched by thousands of racegoers over the duration of the week.

By March 13, all Premier League, EFL and Women’s Super League games were cancelled and no team would kick the ball in anger again until June 17.

Who among the 12,000 who filed in to watch the Accrington game could have possibly dreamed that they would not get another opportunity to see their team live for another 12 months?

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Wanderers diligently prepared for deadlines. Thousands bought season tickets in the hope they would get a chance to see live football – but more importantly knowing that their money would ensure their club was definitely still there when the madness ended.

And so we wait. The stadium’s concourses, untouched by marching feet, sit dusty. Kiosks have been shuttered for months.

Seats which gave a grandstand view of Wilbraham’s winner, of Jay-Jay’s free-kick and Hierro’s majestic farewell stay poised in an upright position, some covered by flags provided by fans’ groups to add at least a splash of colour to the soulless empty games.

Football got going again in August, but not really. Wanderers were unlucky that a spike in local cases at the end of last year meant they never got a chance to invite limited numbers in, as many other clubs did.

Ian Evatt, appointed in July to lead Bolton into the bright new future, has yet to hear the (Reebok) roar, the tribal claim that We Are The One And Only Wanderers, or exactly why fans were walking down the Manny Road.

Bolton’s fanbase has watched on from behind a phone screen, a laptop or a TV set, waiting for the moment they can rock up again and make that stadium sing.

The sooner that happens, the sooner football really can start again.

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