Dougie Freedman was hired as Bolton boss on the 25th of October, 2012, almost two years ago now. Bolton Wanderers had just sacked Owen Coyle who, after once leading the club to Wembley, held the reigns as Bolton endured an ugly nose dive in form that began when Jonny Evans planted a studded boot in to Stuart Holden's knee and didn't end until we were lingering nervously at the bottom end of the Championship, when most people naïvely expected us to be chasing promotion from the get go.
The news of Freedman joining the club was met with plenty of joy, he was currently sitting pretty in 2nd place with a Crystal Palace side full of young, powerful, creative players. Being regarded as one of the brightest, young managers in the country and with a reputation of giving youth players a chance in the first team and getting the best out of them, it seemed like a great coupe for Bolton and a perfect fit.
In his first press conference he also impressed the fans, speaking of his excitement of joining a team with such great facilities, his long game strategy for how he was going to 'change the mentality' of the club from top to bottom and how he was looking forward to working with and integrating the youngsters in to the first team. He spoke well and confidently, which in turn created a sense of optimism and excitement around the club.
Whilst I was re-watching his first interview, however, I noted that he said:
"I worked at Crystal Palace when we went into administration, and I pretty much ran the whole club. So I thought coming here would allow me to put all my energy onto the pitch, all my energy can be spent with the players, all my energy can be focused on winning a game of football"
This statement alone suggests to me that whoever hired Dougie must have given the world's greatest sales pitch to him, to get him here in the first place, because we all know, and I think we all appreciate, that Freedman put in a tremendous amount of work in his time here off the pitch. He drove down the wage bill, got the academy running and probably did so much more, things I doubt we'll ever get to know about.
As Tim Ream said this week in an interview with The Bolton News:
"He did a lot behind the scenes, especially at the training ground, that people don't get to see. But there is a structure in place now. The only thing that needs to be worked on is results and what happens on the pitch. I'll be the first to tell you there were a lot of issues behind the scenes when he came in. He smoothed those out."
This is the reason why I really do sympathise with Freedman, because it seems he thought he was coming into a club where he wouldn't need to deal with anything that didn't concern what occurred on the pitch, yet he probably spent most of his time trying to fix the broken club he found. He was sold the job on lies and, to quote a fella I heard talking on the bus after the Derby game, if you put a Formula 1 driver in a Fiat he isn't going to win the race.
In hindsight, he was pretty much doomed from the start.
He started his tenure as Bolton boss in the best way possible, coming from behind to beat title chasing Cardiff City. He displayed his, one time, ability to impact a game with proactive substitutes when he introduced Martin Petrov and David Ngog, both of which changed the course of the game and scored to give the Whites a 2-1 win.
The victory would spark a run which saw Bolton go undefeated for the entirety of November, as they picked up draws against Leicester City, Blackpool, Barnsley and Brighton. Before capping the month off with a 2-1 victory away to local rivals Blackburn, as chants of "his first name is Dougie, is Dougie, is Dougie" echoed around Ewood Park on a freezing winter night.
The solid form was not to last however, as Bolton then embarked on a terrible run of only two wins in ten games. A run which included massively underwhelming defeats to Leeds, Ipswich, Sheffield Wednesday and Watford, and also an incredible 5-4 loss away to Peterborough. Wedged in between the bad league form, however, was a spirited effort in the FA Cup. We took Sunderland to a replay after earning a hard fought 2-2 draw at home and then caused an upset at The Stadium of Light, with the seemingly resurgent Marvin Sordell bagging a brace to send the Trotters into the next round. Bolton would then take Everton to the very death in a thrilling game at The Reebok, only being nudged out thanks to a stunning last minute winner by booed on substitute, Jonny Heitinga. The game would mark the long await return of Stu Holden as he came on as a second half substitute and also the transformation of Marcos Alonso, from a stumbling, unreliable defender to an excellent player and an essential part of the team.
With Bolton's poor league form it looked as if the play-off dream was over, but on the 9th of February, Bolton managed to fight off competition to secure the signing of West Brom's Craig Dawson on loan, and that changed everything.
He was thrown into the deep end immediately, as he made his debut that day against Burnley and his quality was clear to see as he helped the team fight from a goal behind to win 2-1. Dawson brought composure and solidity to a notoriously porous defence and was the catalyst in a remarkable run of form that saw Bolton lose only three times in the remaining sixteen games of the season.
This run would contain some of the best moments of Freedman's spell in charge of the club: a 4-1 demolition of high flying Hull City; an unbelievable last-gasp Chris Eagles winner against Blackburn Rovers, which sent The Reebok into a state of delirium; an April of four wins, a draw and a loss which earned Freedman the manager of the month award, Bolton winning five games in a row for the first time since 2006 and a real demeanour of pride and quality within the team. It really felt as if we could beat absolutely anyone in that run of form.
Unfortunately, that sensational run would also reveal some of Freedman's frailties as a manager, in particularly his need to tinker with the team. He would often introduce the utterly horrendous (but definitely cult hero) Danny Butterfield when it was uncalled for and he would occasionally cost us points. Freedman's need to tinker was most apparent on the final day of the season, when Bolton faced Blackpool at home, needing a win to guarantee a spot in the play offs. For some unknown reason Dougie deiced to switch the 4-1-2-1-2 formation that had served Bolton so well, for a 4-2-3-1. He also decided to give Rob Hall his first appearance for the club, in the most mind bending of circumstances.
Also missing Dawson, who'd returned to West Brom after his miraculous loan spell, Bolton quickly fell two goals behind. Hall was dragged off with 37 minutes gone, as Freedman reverted back to the tried and tested formation. The Whites managed to claw the game back level before half time, in front of an electric 24,000+ crowd. But heartbreakingly they couldn't find the illusive winner to achieve the final play off spot and due to a last minute Leicester City winner at Nottingham Forest, we missed out completely on goal difference.
Freedman got it wrong that day and god knows where we'd be now if he resisted the urge to change a winning team, a trait which earned him so many critics during his time at the club.
This coupled with the fact that captain Kevin Davies was faded out of the team in favour of youngster Tom Eaves, earned Freedman some doubters, but the majority were still very much on his side as we confidently prepared for the 2013/14 season, with promotion firmly in our sights.
Things didn't exactly go to plan.
After a long summer of failed attempts to resign Craig Dawson, Bolton embarked on their worst start to a season since 1903. Many fans were calling for his head there and then, with very good reason. We were absolutely hopeless, a far cry from the Bolton team that ended the season prior so well. Dougie also came under fire for some perplexing team selections, baffling tactics and constantly telling the fans they didn't know what they were talking about. It wouldn't be the last time Freedman would get complaints for such things.
Bolton didn't earn their first win until the 5th October, eleven games in, when they just about managed to defeat an equally dreadful Birmingham City side away. With Jermaine Beckford and Neil Danns grabbing the goals.
Bolton's form from then to about January was wildly inconsistent, climbing up to midtable after winning three out of fives games, before falling back down to 19th in the league after not winning a game in eight. A run which included the infamous 7-1 defeat to the hands of Reading, which was so embarrassing it physically hurt.
The Freedman Out brigade were in full swing with their detest of the manager being plastered all over social media sites. But personally, I still hadn't turned, as I continued to argue that there weren't really any better alternatives and that he was doing a lot for the club behind the scenes.
With the situation of the club looking rather dire and relegation definitely a more than real possibility, it was another loan market master-stroke from Freedman, which kick started Bolton's late season upturn in performances. The signing in mention was of course, the biblical figure of Lukas Jutkiewicz.
Juke, as he soon came to be known, played an integral part in the team as he was able to lead the line from the front with his strength and ability to hold the ball up, link up with and get the best out of fellow loanee Joe Mason and score a varied amount of goals, all of which propelled Bolton to safety. Since Jutkiewcz joined the club, Bolton only lost four times in the remaining nineteen games of the season. With notable results such as a 4-0 battering of Blackburn at home and a 5-1 demolition of Leeds at Eland Road.
Even Zat Knight had found a rich vein of goal scoring form.
But as the season wrapped up, with Bolton yet again being unable to keep hold of a lead, as they allowed Birmingham City to score an unforgettable last minute equaliser which kept them in the Championship, Bolton fans felt bitterly disappointed as the preseason aspirations never even came close to fruition and we finished the season in the midtable mediocrity of 14th place.
Towards the end of the season Freedman had begun to use the youngsters more, with Andy Kellet and Oscar Threlkeld impressing the Reebok faithful. But that didn't continue into this term and that was probably the biggest disappointment of Freedman's reign of all: he came in with the promise to give the youngsters a chance, and he never really did.
He gave a lot of them their debuts, no question, but he never installed trust or confidence in them and they were never in the first team for long. The ugly picture painted by the likes of Rob Hall and Josh Vela, after they were banned from Twitter and the critism that came in from Jay Lynch and Gregg Wylde once Freedman left, all points to a seemingly fractured club, with a very vivid disconnect between the academy and the first team.
Despite the major disappointment of the season, Freedman retained his post and things actually seemed quite positive in the summer. The apparent 'bad attitudes' had finally been removed from the club and we strengthened well without spending a penny. The club went on a largely successful pre-season tour and, as silly as it may sound, the great work from the BWFC media team with their constant production of nice videos created a positive vibe throughout the club.
However, once again, Freedman was failed by the board and with Jutkiewicz ours for the taking, we failed to sign him after a summer of trying, as he went off to join newly promoted Burnley. This meant Bolton would go into the season with a bare bone strike force.
It didn't go well.
We would open up the season with a horrendous performance away to Watford, as they drubbed us 3-0, which was just the start of another dreadful series of results, one that finally turned my mentality and wanted Freedman to be sacked.
It wouldn't be until September 16th when Bolton picked up their first win of the season, a narrow 3-2 victory over Rotherham United, with Joe Mason being the person to break the curse of Fredi Bobic, as he became the first Wanderer to score a competitive hat trick in twelve years.
The happiness of victory was only momentary though, as four days later Wanderers slumped to a 1-0 defeat away at Wolves, and despite a really encouraging and passionate performance against the best team in the country, Chelsea, the next game home against Derby County, would be the final straw for many a Wanderer. As Derby went two goals ahead due to some hopeless defending, the Macron crowd reared it's ugly head. Three fans invaded the pitch in protest, with two harmlessly making utter tits of themselves in front of the home crowd and the other more menacingly trying to get to Freedman, apparently throwing his season ticket at him too. Choruses of "Freedman Out" and "Gartside Out" rained down like a flurry of flaming arrows, as the atmosphere inside the stadium turned toxic.
As final as those nails seemed, Freedman once again survived as he took his struggling side back down South to face Fulham, one of two teams who were below us. We were humiliated. 4-0. Another disastrous game added to the ever growing list, coupled with Freedman's post-match comments of "the players aren't good enough" was finally enough, and Freedman left the club by mutual consent on Friday October 3rd, 2014.
The news was met with expected joy, but the story of Dougie Freedman's reign is a sad one, a young, promising manager came to this club with high aspirations and he left with the club at the bottom of the Championship, with his stock surely fallen.
A manager ruined by how a club is ran.
For all his flaws, of which there were too many to count, he was failed by the people who sold him this job and that was a big part of his downfall. At the end it was his players, but they weren't his first choice, his second choice and probably even his third choice.
He didn't help himself, but he was a victim of the mirky circumstances at our club.
Upon leaving the Bolton Freedman said "I tried my best" and you know what? If he can honestly look himself in the eyes and say that, then that's fine by me, because despite how much we all truly care, and oh man we do, ultimately, football is just a game and he is just a human being who did try his best, his best just wasn't good enough for this club. So I say, thank you Dougie, for the hard work you did put in, hopefully one day we'll see the fruit of your labour. I wish you the best of luck for the future.
Now it's time to look forward and asses what step Bolton should take next. Whilst the ideas of Phil Brown serenading us all on the pitch with a rendition of "I don't want to go home" or Ivan Campo strolling along the touchline in a suave blazer and turtle neck sweater, may be incredibly romantic and tempting, I think the decision really needs to remove all sentiment. I would by no means be against any Bolton great coming back to the club in a coaching position or even as a director of football, I'm sure it would greatly lift the sombre mood around the place and slowly begin to heal the distance in which the club and fans have gotten, but it needs to be in support of an experienced, strong minded, ambitious manager. One who can motivate the players to play beyond their capabilities and one which must have the ability to be able to work on a budget. Quite a tall order.
There are plenty of names being branded about, with apparently a dozen applications being made to the club already. Some are quite concerning: we really don't need such a divisive (and racist, sexist, anti semantic ect) figure like Malky Mackay, when everyone involved in the club needs to be pulling together. I believe the likes of Chris Hughton, Tony Mowbray and Steve Clarke are the really boring, uninspiring, uncharacteristic options and I don't particularly rate anyone else who's being touted. Well, apart from Neil Lennon, who I think could potentially be a very good choice, but with no Championship experience, it is a risk.
To tell you the truth, I don't really know who Bolton should hire next, but the people who are going to make the decision need to make doubly sure they're choosing wisely, because if this goes wrong our beloved club could be in some very serious trouble. But which ever lucky soul does get the opportunity to pick up the poison chalice that is managing this team, we must all give him are undeterred support and encouragement as he takes over a ridiculously tough task:
To get Bolton Wanderers good again.