I remember the day well. It was late March. Bolton Wanderers had just surrendered a 1-0 lead in the dying moments to draw 1-1 with local rivals Wigan Athletic. The disappointing result left Bolton 17th in the table, with 45 points from 39 matches. Sound familiar? It should. It is the exact situation we found ourselves in one year ago this weekend. It was so dire that my dear colleague Chris Manning wrote:
Now we all know that Bolton's season is effectively over after Lukas Jutkiewicz's heroics saved the club from the manager's brilliance which led the famous club to the brink of relegation to League One.
It's absolutely baffling.
The sooner the season ends and we sack this joker the better.
This year, Bolton Wanderers have just surrendered a 1-0 lead in the dying moments to draw 1-1 with local rivals Wigan Athletic. The disappointing result has left Bolton 17th in the table, with 45 points from 39 matches. The only difference? Our goal differential last year was -5, this year it is -11. Yet, at the end of a recent article Mr. Manning wrote "I trust in Neil Lennon."
I'm picking on Chris, mostly because it's fun, but also to prove a point. Context matters. Dougie Freedman had been in charge for over a season and a half at that point in 2014. He'd been through three transfer windows with the club. Enough time had certainly passed for him to shape the squad as he liked and impart the tactics that he wanted.
Neil Lennon, on the other hand, has been at The Macron for six months, and has only had one transfer window to work with. He has been extraordinarily busy in the loan market though. That aside, it is too early to make any final judgements on Lennon's managerial acumen. I do want to take a look at his performance so far though, and put it in context. Luckily for us, it is easy to make an apple-to-apples comparison. The last four Bolton managers (Lennon, Freedman, Owen Coyle, and Gary Megson) have taken over in the first half of the season after a disastrous start. So let's have a little comparison.
Bolton had a horrible start to the 2007-2008 season, with only 5 points from 10 matches under Sammy Lee. Gary Megson was a very unpopular hire, even being booed and jeered as he walked into the Reebok for the first time. He had 28 league matches in charge that first season. Bolton took 32 points from those matches, and finished 16th. The goal difference was -18 for the season, -13 under Megson.
Megson is the type of manager that has a shelf life, and his expiration date came on Tuesday, 29th December, 2009. It took some time, but eventually Owen Coyle was brought over from Burnley FC to replace the Ginger Mourinho. Megson's team had taken 18 points from 18 matches, and sat 18th in the table with a -10 goal differential. Owen Coyle had 20 matches to set things right.
Despite a -15 goal differential under Coyle, Bolton managed to take 21 points from his 20 matches and finish 14th. Coyle was in over his head though, and he would soon realize it. He was sacked on 9 October 2012. Bolton were 18th in the table with 11 points from 10 matches and a -3 goal difference. It took some time to acquire the new manager, Dougie Freedman, from Crystal Palace.
Freedman had 33 matches that first season. The club took 53 points, with a goal difference of +9. They missed out on a playoff spot on the last day of the season due to Leicester City's far superior goal difference. Whatever we think of Freedman now, that is outstanding.
And that brings us to Lennon. Freedman left on 3 October, 2014. Lennon's first match was 18 October. Bolton were bottom of the table, with only 5 points from 11 matches and a -13 goal difference. So far, Lennon has had 28 matches in charge. In those 28 matches, the club have taken 40 points with a goal difference of +2, which is pretty good. Theoretically, with an impressive run-in, Lennon could have a similar record in his first season to what Freedman did. Yet Freedman's Wanderers side barely missed the playoffs, and Lennon's side are going to finish somewhere between 15th and 18th. What happened?
Well, the top sides have taken more points this season. When we barely missed the playoffs under Freedman we finished with 68 points. 7th placed Brentford FC have 66 points now, with 7 matches to go.
So what's the verdict? Is Neil Lennon over-rated? I'm afraid he is, but that doesn't mean he's a bad manager. If we stretched his results out over an entire season it would result in roughly 66 points, comfortably mid-table in most seasons. The hyperbole when he first arrived was well overblown, and the willingness of supporters to look the other way through 3 months of relegation form has been embarrassing, but overall Lennon is a decent enough manager.
Next season will be the true test. If reports are to be believed, Bolton will have a more or less entirely new squad come August. It's already happened in many ways. Of the 18 men in the squad that faced Wigan last week, only 7 were in the first team under Freedman, and 9 were not even at the club.
In truth, Lennon is still a fairly inexperienced manager. He managed one club for less than four years. Maybe he will grow over time and Bolton Wanderers will grow with him. Hopefully, in a little over a year we will once again be a top flight football club with a top flight manager.