It is a well-worn trope in early summer football reporting that results at this time of the year count for nothing and that the most successful campaigns were built on the least convincing pre-seasons.
And there is plenty of recent evidence to back up that theory.
When Sam Allardyce took Wanderers into the Premier League at the turn of the millennium, he did so on the back of two six-goal thrashings by Danish clubs Lyngby and Odense.
Likewise, the marvellous team led by Colin Todd in 1996/97 which would surge back to the top-flight with 100 goals and (nearly) 100 points had expectations checked when they were beaten by Rotherham United and Carlisle United.
But the opposite can also be true, and those seeking a nice positive omen heading into the new campaign may take heart from this: Two of the three previous times in the last 30 years that a Bolton Wanderers first team has remained unbeaten in pre-season, they ended up in a cup final several months later.
The last time was 2003/4, where after a training camp in Malta – where they happened to pick up a free agent by the name of Kevin Davies – and a couple of wins in Ireland, Sam Allardyce’s team eventually secured an eighth-placed finish in the Premier League and reached the Carling Cup final.
The record books do show a defeat at Halifax Town that summer. Not to take anything away from the Shaymen’s success on that July evening but the Bolton team containing Charlie Comyn-Platt, Kangana Lord N’diwa and Derek Niven did have a whiff of reserves about it.
It is also fair to say that the unbeaten summer did not ensure a hassle free start in the Premier League, where Wanderers won just one of their first 10 games.
Before that, Bruce Rioch took his team through an unbeaten and uncomplicated pre-season in 1994/95, which ended with the Wembley double header of a Coca Cola Cup final against Liverpool and a legendary play-off final comeback against Reading.
Again, the league form did not start especially well. Wanderers won three of their first nine before correcting their course in October and November.
The third occasion was in 2009/10, with Wanderers under the tutelage of Gary Megson. From four first team games just one win was gained, at Den Bosch in Holland, but draws against Borussia Monchengladbach, FC Eindhoven and Hibs – for Jussi Jaaskelainen’s testimonial – at least gave the illusion of stability. A reserve team containing first teamers like Ali Al-Habsi, Danny Shittu and Danny Ward was beaten at Fleetwood.
The season itself was unremarkable, ending with Megson’s departure in December and a new manager bounce for Owen Coyle in the New Year.
And it began with three straight defeats against Sunderland, Hull City and Liverpool.
In between, there have been several occasions where things looked fine and dandy over pre-season, for things to unravel pretty quickly when the serious business began.
The post-Allardyce, Sammy Lee-led team of 2007/8 are a perfect example. Showing up well in the Peace Cup in Korea – losing a tight final against Lyon after beating Chivas and Racing Santander – Bolton also ran up convincing wins against Espanyol and, ahem, Colchester United and Radcliffe Borough. Whites fans will need no reminder how poorly that season started.
Coyle’s team of 2011/12 also racked up half a dozen wins in pre-season, losing narrowly to FC Tampa Bay in Florida and Spanish club Levante at the Reebok. They also started the Premier League season with a swaggering 4-0 win at Neil Warnock’s QPR, further proof then that appearances can sometimes be deceptive.
This summer has been notable for two things – a distinct lack of drama compared to recent years, and the long-awaited return of fans to live football.
Ian Evatt has had to contend with the effect of coronavirus and self-isolation on his squad since they returned at the end of June, and still has some concern over the physical state of some of his players in the week leading up to the big kick-off against MK Dons.
In truth, the manager has done well to avoid the modern trappings of human contact, given he has posed readily for hundreds of selfies with supporters at various friendlies in the last few weeks. After sealing promotion from League Two without playing a single game in front of their own fans it is not surprising there has been such a clamour to re-engage. And the fact Wanderers announced yesterday that they have surpassed the 10,000 season ticket mark only emphasises how readily the town is now embracing its club once again.
Whereas previous summers in these parts have involved major squad overhauls, boardroom upheaval or flat-out financial panic, this one has felt postcard perfect, packed with smiling faces and beers in the sun. On the pitch it has been steady too.
Early wins against Longridge and Atherton were achieved with a flurry of late goals and minimal fuss, but a sluggish draw against FC United brought about a grouchy reaction from Evatt, who claimed his side had disrespected the non-league opposition.
His dressing down got the reaction he wanted.
Gethin Jones sealed a win against Preston North End at Leyland, then Dapo Afolayan did the same at the manager’s old club Barrow.
Fans returned to the UniBol for the first time in 518 days for the 2-2 draw against Blackburn Rovers – 90 minutes of football which hinted that whatever happens in League One, it will be entertaining.
What effect an unbeaten season has on Wanderers’ actual season will only become clear in the coming weeks but it has certainly helped to nurture the newfound feeling of optimism which accompanied promotion.
Football’s emotions are fleeting and who knows how long the good times will last?
Best advice is to enjoy them while we can.
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