"The people here are football-minded, and what we have got to do is waken up the dead ones up, the people who haven’t been coming to Bolton, because they are here, and they are interested in football.”
They were the words of the late, great Ian Greaves as he spoke to the BBC cameras in the summer of 1975, as he took on his first full season at Burnden Park.
Wanderers had returned to the Second Division under Jimmy Armfield and finished a perfectly respectable 10th in 1974/75 but crowds had dipped to an average of just over 13,000, below what they had been in the promotion season.
Greaves had been keen to address any apathy on the terraces. Throughout a distinguished spell in the dugout at Bolton he was rarely without comment on how many folks were coming through the turnstiles, and like any good manager he knew the value of a partisan home support.
That season the Whites recovered from a poor start to storm the table and miss out on promotion by a whisker to West Bromwich Albion. Gates increased to an average of more than 19,000 and more than 42,000 packed in for a festive game against eventual champions Sunderland. The fuse was lit, and though there would be another near-miss 12 months later, a promotion was always going to come.
You can pick up similar vibes these days at the University of Bolton Stadium.
Ian Evatt has never shied away from talking about his ambition – although, he has noticeably dialled down the hubris this summer, potentially to help his players focus on a tough start to the campaign.
He believes his team can get to the Championship and was genuinely disappointed that they did not manage to get closer last term. Whether this is their year remains to be seen but the important thing is that his players and the supporters share the same enthusiasm for the season ahead.
A few years ago, season tickets at Bolton had been a hard sell. That ever-present hardcore support was there, of course, the kind of fan who would turn up just as readily if it were Mansfield Town at home or Manchester United. But to borrow a phrase from Greaves, the “dead ones” did not want to know.
Going to Wanderers had become a chore. Some would argue that pragmatic football was a necessary evil when budgets were being cut and the first team so badly under-funded, others felt the safety-first message was driving people away.
What needed to be done was to make Bolton an appealing club to support once again. Record season ticket sales suggest they have succeeded in that aim.
Evatt has been central to the revival, not only because his side has regularly won games in a style of football considered to be the ‘modern way’ - although that of course helps. His personality has also been a magnetic factor in bringing a younger breed of supporter back to games.
The manager does not need me to tell him that what he says, or how he says it, can be polarising. And that frank demeanour is not always met with unanimous approval among older supporters of his own club. But whether they like it or not, his ballsy rhetoric has sparked something among a generation who might have found something better to do with their time a few years ago.
In a sense, Evatt has the pandemic to thank for part of the shift. Back when crowds were locked out, his team were being watched from behind laptop screens and phones as Wanderers’ games became more accessible than ever to supporters. Success in that season made people want more.
The club recognised it needed to change with the times, too. They have used social media as well as anyone around to connect with younger supporters – and a great deal of credit goes to the “admins” who not only kept that side of things going during lockdown, but who have built on it since things returned to normal. Those who can remember Greaves’ swaggering side of the seventies, who swooned over Frank Worthington’s skills and revered Roy Greaves and Peter Reid might have to bite their lip at times but bringing aboard that new generation of supporter was absolutely necessary.
From what I understand the demographic of those buying season tickets at Bolton is now younger than it has been in some time. And while that can bring associated problems – again, nothing new to children of the Burnden era – there is a fresh feel about the club that extends beyond the painted walls and new carpets.
Greaves got what he wanted. Crowds swelled, the excitement built, heroes were created, and the club reached the First Division. Now can Evatt lead the Gen Z Whites in the same positive direction?
Euro trip has been a delight
IN this job I rarely get a chance to get out and watch live football in person - but with the Women’s Euros on my doorstep I couldn’t resist the chance to join in with the party.
Although I missed the Switzerland v Portugal game in Leigh because I was busy with Wanderers, the atmosphere for the Netherlands v Portugal and Sweden v Portugal games was first class.
Sure, I have been quizzed a bit too much about Brexit by curious foreign supporters - not that I could supply a logical answer to them. And I have learned a couple of new swear words for the collection.
But whether it was at the stadium or in the fan park, it has been such an enjoyable experience and I’m looking forward to Friday’s quarter-final already!
Come on boys and 'goyles'!
PADDY McGuinness once said to me in an interview that it always confused him that Bolton fans rhymed “Owen Coyle” with “goal” in the famous Burnden terrace chant.
The terrace poets doubled down on that half-rhyme a few years ago when Eoin Doyle arrived and scored plenty of them in his 18 months with the club.
Imagine my surprise, then, that after signing a player called Eoin Toal, and finally getting a chance to put the chant right after 25-plus years, that the club is trying to get folk to sing his name along to the old Spandau Ballet classic, Gold.
I don’t expect Wanderers’ new boy to be a prolific goalscorer like Doyler or Coyley but I would like to think that the song-smiths at the University of Bolton Stadium know an open goal when they see one.
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