Around this time eight years ago, Bolton Wanderers would have just returned from Belgrade, having secured progression to the Europa League knockout stages with a 1-0 win against Red Star. This time next year, they could be playing in the third tier of English football.
The grim reality for Bolton is that the points have gone out the same door as the money and they now sit at the foot of the Championship table having won just once in their last 24 league matches.
It’s a far cry from the Sam Allardyce days when finishing in the Premier League’s top eight was a near certainty and players such as Jay-Jay Okocha, Youri Djorkaeff and Iván Campo were lining out at the Reebok (now Macron) Stadium.
It’s a painful reminder of what can happen to a club once they have been removed from the isolated cash-rich bubble that the Premier League has isolated itself inside. The owner has withdrawn his backing, players haven’t been paid for November, the club owes hundreds of thousands in unpaid taxes and the total amount of debt owed has been conservatively estimated at over £170 million. Put simply, Bolton are facing financial ruin.
The threat of administration is a very real one – that itself could bring a twelve-point deduction and leave Bolton staring League One straight in the face even at this relatively early stage of the season.
In short, unless the club is taken over – and soon – there are going to be some very dark days ahead for the Trotters.
There’s a certain susceptibility among teams relegated from the top tier, particularly if they have been up there for a certain number of years, that despite their (generally) better finances and Premier League experience they find returning back up to be much more arduous than they perhaps assumed it would be.
Be it through bad decision-making at the top or subpar managerial appointments and player signings, some notable recent examples would be the likes of Middlesbrough, Blackburn and Fulham who have all gone down and stayed down.
Bolton, though, have taken it a step further. It’s like they took the Leeds United or Portsmouth approach to financial recklessness. How exactly could they justify paying former Liverpool striker David N’Gog £35,000 per week until Swansea made the curious step of taking him off their hands in 2014? Keith Andrews meanwhile, a player who has never been heralded as anything other than a journeyman workhorse, was on somewhere in the region of £25,000 around the same time.
These are just two examples but the club seriously lost its way seemingly from the moment Allardyce walked out the door. They circled the drain before finally going down in 2012 but the resolute Bolton Wanderers of the Allardyce era had been eroded in a sea of missteps long before then.
A club spending above its means in the Premier League is one thing, but this wanton irresponsibility followed them into the Championship. It’s as if they had no idea how to handle life in a lower league – and it’s also why teams like Aston Villa and Sunderland should be terrified right now. Chairman Phil Gartside has a lot to answer for.
After a while that sort of wastefulness becomes fatally irresponsible. Teams such as Manchester United and Liverpool are often criticised for wasting tens of millions of pounds on mistakes on the transfer market, but these teams can afford to make errors because they are swimming in money. The record signings for both of these clubs for example, Ángel Di María and Andy Carroll, were at their respective teams for less than 18 months each before being discarded.
Bolton are nowhere near as affluent – every £5 million mistake here and there is felt by the club, especially now without all that lovely Premier League TV money.
The club is very much for sale – owner Eddie Davies is apparently willing to part with it for £15 million (or ¾ of a Dejan Lovren in Premier League money) but the potential administration and subsequent points deduction is bound to put potential investors off, as well as Davies’ insistence on the full amount being paid upfront in order to cover the club’s running costs for the remainder of the season.
Rival groups headed by former players Dean Holdsworth and Stelios Giannakolopulos, along with a third party from America, have made known their interest but there appears to be a tentativeness on both sides of the process – Davies and financial adviser Trevor Birch want financial security first, stability second; the potential buyers want it the other way around.
The unfortunate certainty is that this is going to get worse for Bolton before it gets better. At the very least, manager Neil Lennon does not appear to be under any immediate pressure regarding his job security (though he has been linked with Reading recently) but the four-point gap between themselves and safety could become sixteen in the very near future.
The club hasn’t just been brought to its knees, right now it’s face down in the dirt. Years of overspending have come back to haunt them, and their plight should be a cautionary tale for Premier League clubs on the way down that the well does dry up – and unless it’s managed properly that it can lead to a catastrophe.
It’s just too bad that they’ll probably have to be giving that warning from League One next year.
Simon O’Keeffe, Pundit Arena