Pre-season expectations for the 2012/13 season, after relegation to the Championship following 10 years at the highest level of English football, were high among Bolton supporters, many believing we had by far the best squad in the division and this nightmare would only be a short-lived one. How wrong we were.
Bolton started the season very indifferently and by the time Millwall away came around on the 7th October 2012 we had a record of 4 losses, 3 wins and 2 draws. Low down in the league and in charge of a team low on confidence, Owen Coyle was under immense pressure, not helped by a 17th minute goal for Darius Henderson. While Wanderers equalised through Chris Eagles, he missed a penalty 10 minutes later and Henderson grabbed a second in stoppage time to win it for the Londoners. Going into the international break, Wanderers, the pre-season favourites for promotion, were in 18th. Something had to change.
Coyle was sacked on the 9th of October 2012 and the Wanderers board had a full international break to appoint his successor. They didn’t use it. Jimmy Phillips was still in temporary charge when the 20th October came around, winning 3-2 against Bristol City. He was still at the helm come the midweek game against Wolves, a 2-2 draw. After what had seemed like an eternity, an appointment was finally made on the 25th of October, the then manager of high-flying, table-topping Crystal Palace, Dougie Freedman.
The standout candidate during the recruitment process had appeared to be Mick McCarthy, a choice that would have been pragmatic, popular and probably successful. However, he was overlooked and would take over Ipswich Town later in the season, spending 6 fruitful years there where they challenged perennially for the play-offs and were relegated following his departure. A case of what might have been.
Freedman was chosen, however, and while his early tenure was a slight improvement on what had gone before, it wasn’t the most spectacular. A great win over eventual Champions Cardiff in first game was followed by a run of 4 draws, bookended by victory away at Blackburn Rovers. His first signing as manager was the loan of Norwich’s Jacob Butterfield, an example of the somewhat erratic use of the loan system that would become a staple of his management style.
The victory at Blackburn was then followed by a leaner period of 2 wins in the next 10 up until the beginning of February, including an embarrassing 5-4 defeat away to Peterborough. What would come after, however, once new signings such as Craig’s Davies and Dawson had bedded in, as well as the emergence of Jay Spearing and Marcos Alonso as key performers, was some run indeed.
For an entire month (9th February to 9th March), Wanderers were unbeaten, winning 6 out of 8 matches and propelling themselves into the play-off driving seat. Dawson was proving not only a rock defensively but also scoring important goals, namely at Barnsley away and brace against Hull at home in a 4-1 win. The highlight, however, was the Tuesday night game in which Wanderers beat Blackburn again, this time with a hugely memorable last-minute goal from Eagles. It was a great time to be a Wanderers fan.
The run ended with back-to-back defeats, but 3 straight wins followed, leading up to a clash with fellow play-off hopefuls Leicester City at the King Power Stadium. It would prove to be not just a defining night in the season, but also in Freedman’s tenure. It was our shot at redemption. Wanderers scored early through David Ngog but went into half-time 2-1 down. Freedman had elected to start loan signing Danny Butterfield at right-back against the sheer pace of Lloyd Dyer, the scourge of Wanderers throughout this decade. Butterfield was utterly torn to shreds for both goals, one of which Dyer scored himself, the other seeing him fouled by the hapless full-back for a penalty. He was withdrawn for Sam Ricketts but had the former Hull man started the game it could have been so different. Darren Pratley equalised in the second half but Jeff Schlupp’s late winner gave the Foxes an advantage in the play-off race, one which Freedman’s selection could have prevented and would eventually prove costly.
On the final day, a win for Wanderers against a Blackpool side already on the beach would have seen them in the play-offs guaranteed. It was not a time to take risks. Freedman then decided to give West Ham loanee Rob Hall his debut, leaving out the in-form Marvin Sordell. While Hall, an attacker, cannot necessarily be blamed for Wanderers proceeding to go 2-0 down, Freedman did then withdraw him, recognising he had made a mistake. It was a baffling decision, shown to be even more the case given that following the change in setup Wanderers clawed the match back to 2-2 before half-time. Come 90 minutes, the draw would still have been enough for the play-offs with Leicester drawing away at Notts Forest. We all know what happened next.
Knockaert’s goal to send Leicester into the play-offs sent them on a path to Premier League glory and us on a path to obscurity. All roads lead back to the game at the King Power, a game lost because of Freedman’s baffling selection choices. For me, that game, coupled with his awful treatment of club stalwart Kevin Davies, was the beginning of the end for Dougie.
Expectations for the following season were somewhat tempered given the limited transfer business done come the opening day against Burnley. A respectable 1-1 draw was a footnote of the opening week however with terrace support for Freedman increased by the permanent signing of Jay Spearing for £1.5 million, a deal the likes of which we haven’t seen since. It couldn’t lift performance on the pitch, however, with Wanderers waiting until October 6th to finally win a game, a 2-1 triumph at Birmingham where the other high-profile summer recruit, Jermaine Beckford, opened his account. It would not prove to be a sign of better things to come.
The season finished with Wanderers in 14th place, signalling a resignation of both manager and board to the fact that the clubs foreseeable future would be at mediocre Championship level at best. There were spectacular highs in beating Leeds 5-1 at Elland Road and Blackburn 4-1 at home but also tremendous lows including the 7-1 battering at Reading and the 5-3 loss to eventual champions Leicester. Lukas Jutkiewicz’ loan signing proved a great success, but the following summer’s failure to resign him demonstrated the real financial peril behind the scenes.
Not only were finances a behind-closed-doors concern, Freedman’s alienation of senior members of staff, including Phillips, as well as his deluded self-confidence irking players and fans alike, allowed serious rot to set in in the lead-up to the 2014/15 season. The calamity waiting to happen was on display in the opening game at Watford, where new signings Dean Moxey and Dorian Dervite both played awfully in a 3-0 defeat. Yet again we had to endure a terrible run which ended after 4 defeats and 2 draws with a scrappy 3-2 win over Rotherham, in which Joe Mason became Wanderers’ first scorer of a hattrick since Fredi Bobic in that famous game against Ipswich in 2002. It would prove to be Freedman’s last 3 points as Wanderers boss.
Consecutive defeats against Wolves and Derby led us into a game away at Fulham, a notoriously unhappy hunting ground for Bolton. What followed was a humiliating 4-0 drubbing that left Freedman, still cocksure about his amazing managerial prowess until this point, lamenting the dire nature of his situation. He stated that he team he had created would probably not be good enough to save his job. It was the first drop of the deluded mask he had worn throughout his tenure, a mask through which he spoke at great length on how the fans would see he was right all along in the end. Guess what? He was wrong.
Freedman departed by mutual consent on 2nd October 2014, having overseen 99 games and leaving the club in a much worse position than he found it. The great irony of course being that his Crystal Palace team had been promoted in the same season he left and remain in the Premier League to this day; that tells you a lot about how Phil Gartside and co. were conned into believing the Scot was the great young manager he professed to be.
Freedman can’t be blamed for the lack of investment he received, but that is his only saving grace. He cost us our shot at redemption, he picked ludicrous line-ups and made outlandish comments that peeved everyone around him and all the while he thought of himself as superior to everyone else. As if he couldn’t get any more unpopular with Wanderers fans, his part in pulling the plug on Lee Chung-Yong’s return to the club in January 2018 summed up his personality. Dougie Freedman is The Deluded One, a man whose bitterness is only matched by the size of his ego.