10th May 1998 could be the place to start. Chelsea 2-0 Bolton Wanderers. A young DTMR barely out of infants bawling into his pillow when relegation from the Premiership (as it was then known) was confirmed. In that moment, this was the worst thing that could ever happen to me and my football team. Through streams of tears, I ripped at the poster on my bedroom wall entitled “We are Premier League!”. Keith Branagan’s smile did not falter as he was torn from the mantle - the invincible team of 1997 cast back to the second tier of English football. For the first time, Bolton Wanderers had broken my heart. It wouldn’t be the last.
Or I could start at 30th April 2017. Jem Karacan, David Wheater and Adam Le Fondre putting a lacklustre Peterborough United side to the sword. At the first time of asking, Bolton Wanderers had been promoted from the third tier. Tears again, this time couched in the eyes of an older, more seasoned Wanderers fan far more accustomed to heartache, and for very different reasons. In that moment, it was all worth it. The embargoes, the relegations, the public spats between warring owners. It was all worth it. Football, and therefore life, was bloody brilliant.
And then of course there’s 6th May 2018. I don’t need to say one word about what happened on that day. If you know, you know. If you don’t, you’ll never believe it.
How Bolton Wanderers managed promotion in the 2016/17 season was nothing short of miraculous. After suffering the embarrassment of relegation from The Championship without so much as a whimper under Neil Lennon and a rumbling ownership charade that would in time result in the current cesspit we find ourselves in, only a madman would have wanted the Wanderers hot-seat. Not all madmen are geniuses, but all geniuses have walked the tightrope where madness awaits them if they fall. Luckily, a football club in dire need of a return to the good times managed to find the perfect fit - a man that was mad enough to take the job, but had that little sprinkling of brilliance needed to assemble a squad worthy of promotion.
Phil Parkinson, famed for his spectacular run to the League Cup Final with Bradford City, had left Valley Parade for pastures new in Greater Manchester. The Bolton Wanderers job had proven a poisoned chalice, a ruinous role that tarnished the budding reputations of Owen Coyle, Dougie Freedman and Neil Lennon. His signings were economical (forced) and shrewd (skillful). Mark Beevers was a towering centre half that brought experience and leadership to the defensive line. Mark Howard and Ben Alnwick provided competition for what had previously been a problem position. Filipe Morais electrified the mood around the team from February, adding an urgency and potency to the flanks. Adam Le Fondre did what some had begun to doubt he could still do - score goals.
If getting Bolton Wanderers into The Championship was a miracle, words cannot do justice what happened just a year later. If you can watch Aaron Wilbraham’s stooping header and not experience the rush of adrenaline through your torso, you’re not a Bolton Wanderers fan. Every replay is a reminder of the greatest of escapes, not enough of a rush to replicate that moment (nothing ever will), but enough to raise a smile from the corner of your mouth and put the hairs on your arms on end.
I could write for hours on the achievements of Phil Parkinson as Bolton Wanderers manager. I could wax lyrical on his class in the face of abuse from a minority of supporters, of farcical leadership from a crooked chairman, of an arduous administration process. I could regale all who would listen of Parky’s rumoured attempts in recent weeks to bring senior players off strike by visiting their homes and pleading them to continue to work without the assurance of pay. It would be futile - if you need convincing of the man’s class, I would need convincing of your sanity.
History will remember Phil Parkinson as the man who steadied a sinking ship, who patched the holes and inspired its crew to journey on despite the futility of the exercise. In this writer’s opinion, his achievements, though radically different from his peer, are on a par with Sam Allardyce. It is hard to compare the two - Parky never took a side to the latter stages of European competition, nor forged a side that would strike fear in English football’s elite clubs, but he managed to bring joy to a footballing town that had resigned itself to eternal misery. I dare say that Sam Allardyce would not have the tools in his arsenal, the experience of excelling despite abject footballing poverty, to replicate the achievements of Phil Parkinson.
Like that summer’s afternoon in 1998, I find myself gutted, a word men use to belittle emotional pain by giving it a mask of masculinity. It’s a crap word. Granted, age is a fine way to acclimatise yourself to heartbreak. There will be no tantrums this time, no cathartic destruction of beloved possessions, but the feeling remains. The word gutted doesn’t quite do it justice, but it’s the best I’ve got.
Phil Parkinson, all that is left to say is that the pleasure has been ours. The town of Bolton has been blessed by your presence and endeavours. I only wish we had seen happier times. It’s been a blast, gaffer.