2017 will be remembered by many a Bolton Wanderers fan as the year they fell back in love with football.
The past five years had been enough to obscure the elegance of the beautiful game. The humiliation of being trounced 5-0 by Tony Pulis' Stoke City at Wembley in an FA Cup semi-final. The heartbreak of relegation from the Premier League after an 11 year stay in the top flight, again at the hands of The Potters, on the final day of the 2011/12 season. Missing out on the play-offs on the last day of the season after managing only a draw at home to lowly Blackpool in the first season back in The Championship. Financial meltdown behind the scenes. The final insult would prove to be relegation to the third tier of English football for the first time in 24 years.
When you encapsulate the conglomeration of disasters that have spanned just half a decade, it's no surprise that attendances at the Macron plummeted to record lows - the average crowd in the ill-fated 2015/16 season was just 15,000. With the spectre of administration dominating the headlines off the pitch, there wasn't much to cheer about. There was the rising star Rob Holding emerging at centre half, but he would soon move to Arsenal for a paltry £2 million. Zach Clough would stay on beyond the summer, only to be snapped up by Nottingham Forest on transfer deadline day.
Fast forward just thirteen months since relegation to League One was confirmed, and the mood around the club and town has improved immeasurably. From the pitch invasion that ensued at the full time whistle after Wanderers sealed promotion with a 3-0 victory over a poor Peterborough side, to David Wheater accepting his Player of the Season award alongside defensive partner Mark Beevers on the same evening, to the celebration at the town hall steps in the days following promotion, a theme tune has emerged. A song that has hidden meaning for Wanderers fans; step forward, Neil Diamond.
Sweet Caroline has been adopted many teams across different sports in different nations. The Boston Red Sox have been known to enjoy a rendition of your Grandma's favourite from time to time, as do the NFL's Carolina Panthers, whereas on the fairer side of the Atlantic, both Reading and Stoke have made the song their own over the years. This year, Neil Diamond became the soundtrack to Bolton Wanderers' promotion to the Championship.
"Where it began, I can't begin to knowing...
Did the recovery begin on the first day of the season, when a Jay Spearing volley gave Wanderers an opening day win over eventual champions Sheffield United? Could it be traced back to 10th June 2016, when co-owners Dean Holdsworth and Ken Anderson agreed a compensation deal with Bradford City in order to appoint Phil Parkinson as manager? For me, it was the away victory at AFC Wimbledon in mid-August, Bolton's first away win in a staggering 495 days, that set the tone for the season. The shadows of the previous year were cast aside with Liam Trotter’s 70th minute winner.
"...was in the spring, and spring became the summer, who'd have believed you'd come along..."
In a season of stellar performances from newly recruited players throughout the side, and the rescued reputations of key squad members such as Jay Spearing, Gary Madine and David Wheater, one player's contribution in the early spring cannot be ignored.
Filipe Morais, released by Bradford City in the January transfer window, signed for the Whites on 2nd February as a free transfer, and was reunited with former boss Phil Parkinson. With talisman Zach Clough leaving for Nottingham Forest in the closing minutes of deadline day, and Sammy Ameobi's return from loan to his parent club Newcastle United, Wanderers had lost their creative spark. The Portuguese winger needed to hit the ground running.
His impact on the team was like nothing seen before at The Macron. Morais achieved 13 assists in just 19 games at Bolton, the fourth highest in League One for the season, including a club record 4 assists in a 4-0 thrashing away at Gillingham.
After winning the League One Player of the Month award for March, the Chelsea academy graduate would go on to score a vital goal away to Oxford, a 4-2 victory which put daylight between Parkinson's men and the chasing pack. When spring turned to summer, Morais had blossomed into the centrepiece of Phil Parkinson's side.
"...reachin' out, touching me, touching you..."
I must state here that there were no football-inspired orgies on the terraces in the quiet suburb of Horwich. However, the club reached out to supporters, and reconnected with a fan base that had become disaffected with the goings on behind the scenes. The club set prices for the key home game against Chesterfield in April to just £5 for children. The Wanderers faithful responded, and over 23,000 Boltonians cheered their side on to a drab 0-0 draw. The healthy crowds didn't dissipate there; for the final day showdown with Peterborough United, there were over 22,000 fans in the ground singing their side to promotion.
In a season where the club's fortunes have improved both on and off the field, one of the greatest victories has been the reconnection between those inside the four walls of The Macron stadium, and those who spend their money to get into it.
"...Sweet Caroline (Phil Parkinson), good times never seemed so good..."
Any promoted side has been managed well. Bad managers don't win promotions. Good managers do. Great managers win promotions under a transfer embargo.
Neil Lennon was on a hiding to nothing at Bolton - he had some bright young talents in Zach Clough, Josh Vela and Rob Holding, but his squad had a soft underbelly and lacked the fundamental qualities needed to survive in the Championship.
Phil Parkinson has blown away the cobwebs of past seasons, and created a team ethic based on clean sheets, good game management, and mental toughness. He has become the first manager to lead a team operating under a transfer embargo to promotion in English football.
I've seen Kevin Davies beat Oliver Khan from 15 yards at the Allianz Arena. I've seen Colin Todd wave goodbye to the hallowed turf at Burnden Park with what was then the First Division title. I've seen a Jay-Jay Okocha screamer book Wanderers a place in a League Cup final. We've seen better days here in Bolton, but set in the context of previous seasons, this term's achievements have added meaning to the Wanderers faithful.
"...I'd been inclined, to believe they never would..."
Let's be frank, Bolton Wanderers is lucky to still be in business. Three winding up orders have landed at the chairman's door since promotion was sealed on 30th April. Most pressing is the £5m loan yet to be repaid to Blumarble Capital Ltd, with a further £2.5m owed in interest. Before that, the much spoken of but often exaggerated debt owed to Eddie Davies was somewhere between £30 and £180 million.
Ask a fan of Portsmouth, Blackpool, Charlton Athletic, Blackburn Rovers, Coventry City or Leyton Orient and they'll tell you that when the very future of your football club is threatened, it means just that little bit more to you. When times are bad, it's like being stuck in a loveless marriage with no hope of a divorce. When the good times return, you fall in love with football all over again.
Times have been better in Bolton, and they've certainly been worse. For now, the good times are back, and they've never seemed so good.