Given the circumstances Bolton Wanderers went into this season, anything other than relegation was going to be an achievement. A summer recruitment drive had been managed under that endless embargo, but no one was fooled that it was enough. A miserly two points from the first eleven games backed up this view, with a team putting in performances that seemed to show they were at a level above their abilities. Parky was under fire, with an admittedly poor previous Championship record being used against him. On field failure, with players looking out of their depth, defensive team selections, hoof ball, all suggested a deja vu 15/16 horror season was upon us. An unexpectedly resurgent Madine apart, it did indeed look bleak.
However, it can be a fine line between success and failure in football. One game has always stuck with me in regard to this point. That game was on New Year’s Day 2005. Bolton looked to be extending a winless Premiership run into double figures, being 1-0 down at home to WBA. Late in the second half, a team short of confidence was struggling to prove that they’d ever mastered controlling a football in their careers. Big Sam was getting absolute dogs abuse for defensive football & crap substitution timings. To many fans, the players and manager had taken the club as far as they could go and this opinion was voiced very vocally. Diouf rescued a point in the 85 minute. Bolton went on to have their most successful season in my and most other fans lifetimes, finishing sixth in the league.
Similarly, this season, eleven games in and Bolton had a new signing in Karl Henry. Coupled with Ameobi and Vela returning from injury, whilst we lost that game narrowly to Villa, a spark had been ignited in the team. They clicked, they could compete, they climbed the table. A spine of Alnwick, Wheater, Henry, Vela and Madine, along with the mercurial Ameobi on the wing, meant that come the reverse fixture at the Macron, Bolton’s victory over the Villains had put safety very much in the clubs grasp. Eight games to go and Bolton were more lower mid table than relegation candidates. Some turnaround, back slaps for all.
At this point mention has to be made of the Madine sale on transfer deadline day, a player that Parky said was critical to Bolton’s continued success. Madine hadn’t been replaced like for like and the squad was left with a 38 year old holding striker, who’s best days were in the past. It seemed a sucicidal decision. However, the reality is somewhat different. In the ten games since Madine’s departure, Bolton had won three and drawn four. Parky had adapted the team line up and tactics to suit. The players had taken it all on board and were still surviving. Madine’s departure was a big blow, but let us not kid ourselves that it was terminal to the clubs survival prospects. Similarly, the loss of Cullen and Armstrong can be seen as of no impact whatsoever.
Perhaps what was to be more of an issue were the quality of the players brought in during that winter window to fortify the squad. Injuries, suspensions and burn out were going to impact performances for the last part of the season. We needed players who were able to step in and keep the wagon rolling, so to speak.
However, the highly rated but injury prone Kirchhoff and Obasi not surprisingly got injured and both Charsley and Walker soon showed that they were not ready for the cauldron of a Championship relegation battle. Flanagan flattered to deceive and then bombed. This left fan favourite Zach Clough. Obviously, not a direct replacement for Madine, he was seen as an ideal deep lying number 11 to feed ALF through the middle. It never really seemed to click though and Zach sadly disappeared to the bench, at times not even making that. A mistake by Parky of not utilising Clough more in my opinion, but to be fair, we never see what is happening on the training pitch.
Anyhow, we reached the March International break in good spirits and hopeful that a couple more wins would see us safe, particularly as our fellow relegation candidates seemed to be doing their level best to get relegated.
The first indication of trouble ahead came from the chairmans notes on 27th March, although we didn’t pick up on it at the time. Particularly;
‘...there has been some speculation in the press and on social media about players’ contracts. What I can tell you is that we are already talking to the agents of some of the current squad about extending their deals.
Once our destiny is known for certain, we’ll be in a stronger position to speak with the other players and their representatives.’
Surely it should be all or nothing, particularly when making a public statement? Select players being offered new deals whilst the majority are told to wait at such a crucial late stage of the season couldn’t have gone down well in the squad. It hardly reinforces the ‘we’re all in it together’ spirit that was a cornerstone of team motivation. Better to leave all contract talk until our league position was confirmed.
Back to the football and whilst the post break defeat away to Leeds was rightly shrugged off, the following mid week listless performance and defeat at home to Brum, most certainly was not. Still six games left but the alarm bells started ringing. A strangely defensive starting XI line-up for a home relegation battle had bombed, with attacking options that perhaps should’ve started, unable to change the game once brought on.
Matters were further enflamed with the post match chairmans notes. Particularly;
‘...As l have said previously the majority of our squad are playing for new contracts...’
and ‘...it’s imperative that the squad as a whole gives 120% in every game for the full game, not just in patches, and unfortunately this has not been the case for several players recently.
These players all know who they are and they need to step up their performance if they want to stay with us next season.’
Whilst perfectly commendable for a chairman to make this point in private, probably not such a great idea to throw them under a bus in public. I don’t imagine this was the pick me up statement the playing staff were looking for...
Since then has been the atypical viscous circle. Fearful formations when braver attacking line ups were called for, players not following pre game instructions, performance levels no longer being competitive, long ball hoofs rather than considered passing, defeat, player form/confidence drops, repeat.
Despite all this, if Barnsley hasn’t managed to get that last minute equaliser in the one game Bolton did actually perform in, the chances are that we would be safe, or as near as now.
The icing on this particular shitfest of a business end of a season cake, came after the Burton debacle. A game were the proverbial mob, flaming torches and pitchforks at hand, were coming for Frankenstein’s monster. Yes, we were losing, badly, and Parky was the focal point of Bolton fans ire. Post match, a disheartened Parky interview seemed to confirm to many fans that he was already a lost cause. The chairmans note once again seemed to add oil to the fire, particularly;
‘Following yesterday’s very disappointing result against Burton Albion I think that there is no point in me adding my comments and that everything that needs to be said has already been said in the media and on the social media channels and by the manager.
There has been a great deal of comment about the defensive strategy and team setup recently and we have taken this on board and having discussed this with the manager, l can assure you, that there will be a positive and offensive line up against Nottingham Forest this Sunday.’
Once again, absolutely not something that should be put out there in public before our last season defining game against Forest.
Nevertheless, both the manager and the first team must take their fair share of the blame for the last seven games. They will know they haven’t met the standards they have shown they are capable of this season.
However, all is not lost. The teams around us are down at the bottom, with unusually low end of season points totals, for a reason. Whilst Bolton’s away form has been woeful, our home form for most of the season has not and we play at home on Sunday. Phil Parkinson, despite many fans believing the opposite, has succeeded in the past by changing tactics to suit the players available and putting out teams that can do a job. The players available for this last oh so important game have shown this season that they can compete at this level. For pride, if nothing else, when they pull on that famous white jersey, that they are so privileged to wear, they need to push out their chests, hold the heads high and go out and play that game they are most certainly capable of. They can beat Forest, but they need to start believing in themselves again to do it. There will be a big and very vocal crowd to back them, but only the players can do the business. So lads, show us that you’ve got that pride in yourselves, go out there and give it everything you’ve got. If we win and stay up, whatever happens afterwards, it will be a game you will remember for the rest of your lives. That on its own is a game that’s worth winning. COYWM.