33 years ago today (07 May 1988), Bolton won a closely fought match at Wrexham, to grab the third and final automatic promotion place in Division 4. This ended an 8 year run of consistent footballing failure on (& financially off) the field, with Bolton having previously dropped from the first to fourth division.
Final promotion game aside, I’d defy anyone who said that season was enjoyable and I dread to think how things would’ve turned out if the Wanderers had had to do things the hard way via the playoffs. Nevertheless, automatic promotion was attained and so started a comeback that would lead to Big Sams Bolton Galácticos and then European cup competitions.
Fast forward to 2021 and Bolton find themselves in a deja vu situation punching well below their weight in what is now League 2. After Sam Allardyce’s departure, a catalogue of catastrophically bad off field decisions may be ultimately more responsible than the poor performing teams on it, but the end result was that once again Bolton had hit rock bottom.
Nevertheless, failure doesn’t stop opportunities and since the January additions, a new generation of footballers have indeed given the Wanderers a golden opportunity to rise from the ashes. I was going to use the Phoenix simile but alas that metaphor now has a more unfortunate connotation with abject failure for Bolton fans.
How we are in a position were it is in the clubs own hands to get automatic promotion seems nothing short of a miracle. A fresh start in the summer was pretty much spurned, as many signings were seemingly made via Football Manager rather than using people with an actual footballing background to do the data analysis and scouting. We had a young but highly engaging head coach seemingly caught up in the preseason bullish promotion frenzy, rather than listening to the warning voice that must’ve been going off in his head. A 3-5-2 formation that didn’t suit the players signed, the never ending curse of injuries to key players and a squad seemingly unable to live up to their Premier League stadia surroundings, was leading to a cacophony of slapped foreheads from Bolton fans up and down the country. The November respite aside, defeat and humiliation seemed never ending in front of empty soulless stadiums, be it at the Reebok cathedral or small town grounds with marquee tents for stands and all watched via a medium where the promised single camera live match ‘steaming’ appeared to be some Elastoplast, fingers crossed, hoping it works, joke.
Key decisions make or break boardrooms and particularly owners in the take no prisoners furnace of the EFL. Our new owners, the well meaning Football Ventures had good intentions but little football experience. It showed and they were mercilessly punished for it. Team Bolton had fizzled out to be binned alongside our League One membership. The less said about the footballing consultant Kenyon and his Head of Football Operations Phoenix sidekick experiment that followed the better.
However, FV stuck at it, stayed true to their convictions and it has to be said, showed not a little courage. Many an owner would’ve thrown a faltering inexperienced head coach, who was clearly feeling the pressure, under a bus. FV promoted him to manager instead, trusted his judgement and backed Ian fully in the coming January transfer window. That paid immediate dividends, as in my humble opinion, this last window has possibly been the clubs most successful one since Megson was given an open wallet to sign the likes of Cahill, Steinsson and Taylor some 13 years earlier in order to get Bolton out of relegation trouble. Evatt’s signings of MJ, Lee and John have brought much needed experience and quality. Dapo is probably the find of the season and both Jackson and Elbazedi have shown recent promise. Coupled with stalwarts such as Gilks, Sarcevic and Doyle, a change in formation to 4-2-3-1, enabling among other things a Santos/Baptiste centre back partnership to thrive, the nitro performance button was about to be hit.
Back in January though, to say it wasn’t obvious is an massive understatement. Bolton were twentieth and appeared about as destined for success as a ten day constipated man trying to deliver King Kongs finger. Nevertheless and it is worth putting in words here, since that one sided second defeat to Tranmere, Bolton have won 15 and drawn 3 from the last 21 games. That’s almost 2.3 points per game! A truly incredible turnaround and fight back.
So to the point of this article. If Bolton win away against Crawley on Saturday, they get promoted regardless of results elsewhere. That’s all that matters. It’s in Boltons hands to grab the opportunity or fritter it away and hope for help elsewhere.
All other clubs in this league and probably many elsewhere, want Bolton to fail. As mentioned in a number of articles, Crawley will be more than up for ending their disappointing season on a high, by destroying Boltons promotion dreams and condemning us to another humiliating and humbling season in the bottom league. But whilst we must respect that fact, it should not dominate the Bolton players thoughts.
Similarly, the run up to this game is a huge test of Evatt and his coaching team’s ability to get the team focused and tuned for Saturday. But it isn’t all down to Evatt & Atherton.
Simply put do the players want promotion or not? After working so hard and performing a minor miracle to go on a run and take Bolton from twentieth to the third automatic promotion place in just 21 games, do they want to let the pressure and nerves get the better of them?
Whilst a number of these players have done enough to earn contracts in higher leagues regardless of whether Bolton go up or not, surely the experience of being in a team that actually wins promotion equates to a dream answered, an ambition achieved. Is that not ultimately what football is all about, winning things that will forever recorded in footballing history?
Many players do not experience promotion or lifting a trophy. They will all have dreamed of doing it though and for many it will be why they took up football in the first place. Because it is so difficult to do and always hard earned, it must be the ultimate nectar when winning promotion or a cup final becomes a dream or ambition realised. If that is not motivating, then what is?
Often quoted but so true, Bruce Rioch nails the point home well - “When you get into this position its about embracing the pressure. You can’t think about failure - just remember the fact you’re in this position for a reason. You are more than capable.”
Come tomorrow, this Bolton Wanderers team is more than capable of getting the win needed, but they have to earn it, put in a hard working, courageous, confident performance and let their quality see them through. Only then can they and us fans start to dream of what happens next.