The 2021/22 End of Seasons Awards night provided the chance for some realism and reflection of how far our beloved Bolton Wanderers have come since the dark days. It had been five years since a night such as last evening had been held at the club, with the event previously postponed by coronavirus and the K*n Anderson era (a Bolton Wanderers epidemic in its own sense).
The feelgood factor is back thanks to Football Ventures, Ian Evatt, his backroom team, playing staff and us fans all pulling in the same direction. The motto for this season, and for the evening, was “onwards and upwards”. Whilst many were content to shine a light on the tremendous good the club has done in the last two seasons, Evatt addressed the elephant in the room. A born winner with unapologetic high standards, he briefly spoke of his disappointment that we couldn’t make it back-to-back promotions in the Football League. One thing is for certain: everyone at Bolton Wanderers Football Club is ready to make a push for promotion next season.
There was one moment above all others that highlighted the togetherness of this football club, when the crowd were asked to applaud the bravery shown by Vice Captain Gethin Jones in what must have been an unspeakably difficult time in his life. Geth and his family are part of our wider family. Once you’re in, you’re in. We all were deeply saddened by Karen’s death after a short battle with Motor Neurone Disease. The All Star Game and black tie dinner held earlier this season had raised over £100,000. Though helpless to help in many other ways, the Bolton family came together and did what it could, led by its tireless matriarch Sharon Brittan.
Geth managed to navigate the tables of fans with expert movement. Dressed to the nines, Geth and Josh Sheehan’s odds to play the next James Bond were slashed by the end of the night. Squad favourites Rico Santos and Dapo Afolayan had to plan their toilet breaks 45 minutes in advance, ambushed by fans seeking selfies, autographs or a quick word of appreciation.
One player who was more than happy to mingle was Alex Baptiste, although the conversation was inevitably the same wherever he went: is he retiring? Whether he returns in a playing capacity or not next season, surely a place will be made available on Ian Evatt’s coaching staff for the elder statesman of the squad.
And while George Johnston, Dion Charles, Amadou Bakayoko, Dapo Afolayan and Rico Santos deservedly picked up awards on the night, it might be time to give Baps some long overdue attention.
They say “never go back” in football. Admit it, when we brought Alex Baptiste back to the fold, you weren’t excited. His first spell as a Wanderer had ended in disappointment after all. Often deployed as a makeshift left back in a team that underestimated The Championship after relegation from the Premier League, Baptiste’s name was just another on a long list of players with forgettable tenures as a Wanderer. After just one season, he was sent on loan to local rivals Blackburn Rovers. He wouldn’t be seen in a white shirt again, his three year tenure cut short with a permanent move to Middlesbrough.
Fast forward five years, and Baps rejoined a club on the other end of a dark journey. He formed a fearsome partnership with Rico Santos in League Two last season, and brought some much needed experience to a young Bolton side. This season, he opened his account with a last gasp equaliser against MK Dons on the opening day. A true centre half’s finish, he mishit an open goal to tap in and score. As the season progressed, he saw his time on the field limited, starting just six games. His substitute appearance on the final day of the season seemed to be a sentimental nod from teammate-turned-gaffer Ian Evatt. Although (and don’t hold me to this), I’m almost certain he told one fan “one more year” when he was asked for the hundredth time whether he was calling it a day on his playing career.
If it is the end Baps, let me say this: thank you for coming back for a second stint as a Wanderer. As the club has emerged from the clutches of extinction, you have had the opportunity to carve out a new reputation as a leader of this young squad. Your worth to Ian Evatt is no doubt felt as much off the pitch as on it. I hope there’s a job for you on the other side.
Next year is the time to keep the nucleus of the team together, improve in key areas of need, and make a real push for promotion. Who knows, next year’s end of season dinner might have a party atmosphere instead of a nagging sense of “what might have been”?
Onwards and upwards.