Other summer signings may have got pulses racing quicker at Wanderers – but the installation of a new chief executive in Neil Hart yesterday may just prove one of the more important news flashes of the season.
It is approaching two years since Football Ventures completed their takeover at the University of Bolton Stadium and began the formidable task of rebuilding a club which had effectively been stripped for parts by previous ownership and a difficult administration.
Establishing a managerial hierarchy was one of the first targets – but Sharon Brittan and Co could hardly have predicted at the time that relegation to League Two would then be accompanied by a global pandemic, testing even the strongest football clubs’ resolve.
Bit by bit, the pieces of the puzzle have been reassembled since the start of the year. The team was galvanised by new signings, eventually sealing promotion, recruitment has been bolstered with the arrival of Chris Markham and the club’s youth structure aided with the return of a reserve team and coaching help to boot.
The arrival of Hart, who remains a well-respected figure at his former club Burnley, now gives the Wanderers organisation some structure on which they can really build for the future.
Hart replaced the EFL-bound Dave Baldwin as CEO of the Clarets in December 2019, having worked for six years at the head of the club’s successful Football in the Community programme.
The decision to take the job meant he withdrew from taking-up a chief executive post at Huddersfield Town, prompting an angry response from the Terriers’ chairman Phil Hodgkinson, who branded the move “incredibly disappointing.”
Hart has some challenging times at Burnley, leading the club through the financial problems of the pandemic. He also received widespread praise for his firm and decisive condemnation of a publicity stunt by a group of far-right Burnley fans who flew a plane banner over a Premier League game between the Clarets and Manchester City at the Emirates with the message: “White Lives Matter Burnley”.
Having worked with the communities of East Lancashire for several years, delivering programmes which reached more than 30,000 people a year, few were better placed to underline how off-target such a sentiment was with the people of the town.
Hart’s job as CEO lasted until March this year when an American consortium brought in their own people – but the testimonies from within at the time suggest Bolton could be getting a good deal.
“With the significant impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the last year has involved several challenges in overseeing a Premier League football club, and I’d like to recognise Neil for the work he’s done at Burnley and in the local community,” said Alan Pace, who would step into the CEO role at the Premier League club.
“While overseeing the club in the interim period, the board and I will begin the search for a new CEO immediately and will update supporters in due course.”
Burnley boss Sean Dyche also acknowledged the work Hart did during a difficult spell across the board in football.
"Neil is a good operator simple as that,” he said. “I wish him well beyond this challenge he has had here, and it has been a challenge that is for sure. His tenure as CEO has not been the norm, there has been a lot going on. I think he has handled himself very, very well and we wish him well beyond this."
The role of chief executive at Wanderers has been somewhat unstable since the club dropped out of the Premier League in 2012.
One of the first cost-cutting measures implemented after losing top-flight status was to make 17 staff redundant, which included CEO Allan Duckworth, who had been with Wanderers for the previous 14 years.
Bradley Cooper stepped in, initially as chief operating officer, and stayed with Wanderers for a further three years. His responsibilities were then taken up by Phil Gartside in the final 12 months of Eddie Davies’s ownership, until ill-health meant he had to step away and Trevor Birch – now CEO of the Football League - was brought on board to oversee the sale of the club and fill in the gaps.
When Dean Holdsworth and Ken Anderson assumed control, no official CEO appointment was made, but Paul Aldridge was brought in as a consultant. The former Sheffield Wednesday and West Ham man had plenty of experience but often found himself in an invidious position as the go-between in what became a toxic environment.
After Football Ventures pulled Wanderers back from the brink in late summer 2019, Emma Beaugeard – a trusted friend and business associate of chairman, Sharon Brittan - was appointed as CEO. She remained in place for around nine months and helped the club through the early part of the pandemic, suffering her own personal tragedy with the loss of her father to Covid-19.
Last season, Andy Gartside bridged the role alongside his own as chief operating officer and after he announced he was leaving to spend more time with his young family, chief financial officer Scott Lindsay has proved a worthy substitute until Hart’s appointment was confirmed.
Now in position, the new chief executive will be tasked with leading Wanderers out of the ‘pandemic bubble’ and back towards normality. With that comes managing the safe return of supporters to the stadium in August and the opportunity to make good on a promise the new owners have struggled to keep.
Yesterday also marked the rebranding of the club’s official charity arm. Formerly known as the Bolton Wanderers Community Trust, the venture will now be known as Bolton Wanderers in the Community.
Again, that news will probably not resonate with the average football fan quite like a bit of transfer gossip – but the work done by the (former) trust will probably have affected every person in the town at least once in their lives.
Football Ventures have talked about strengthening community links from the get-go but have thus far found it difficult to make tangible progress, especially given the restrictions the pandemic has brought.
Brilliant work has continued, and even as lockdown gripped the country there were scores of staff making calls to vulnerable supporters, making deliveries, holding Zoom keep-fit sessions and generally ensuring that nobody felt abandoned by the club.
Now it will be incumbent on the new chief executive to transfer some of the successes he had at Burnley, which led to a number of awards for their work in the community, to his new job and marry it up with keeping another founder member of the Football League heading in an upward trajectory.
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