Eye Witness Assessment: Bolton Wanderers are in Intensive Care
Amir Khan would be proud. As double whammies go, fans of Bolton Wanderers have been on the receiving end of two sledgehammers this January.
First, after several years of heavy punishment on the financial front, the latest body blow landed as the club’s parent company Burnden Leisure Limited announced a new high for its debt of £163.8 million.
Then, following a mini-recovery and an encouraging 1-1 draw with Nottingham Forest, the team somehow fell to a 7-1 defeat against a Reading side that have themselves looked sluggish and lacking in appetite in recent weeks while experiencing some potentially acute fiscal problems of their own.
How the Lancashire club reached this situation has been well chronicled and there is little doubt that on pitch travails and off pitch mismanagement are deeply intertwined.
Two classic articles bookend the period of gloom. First, in 2010, blogger Swiss Ramble cast his eye over Wanderers’ parlous financial situation at a time when Bolton were riding high in the Premier League and playing good football into the bargain under Owen Coyle (Wigan fans should suspend belief for a second).
At that point, the club’s deficit had climbed to £45 million for the 12 months bridging 2009 and 2010, Chairman Phil Gartside was estimated to be earning £584,000 a year, gate receipts had slumped alarmingly from their 2006 high of £9.8 million, owner Eddie Davies was accorded £3.6 million linked to an interest rate of 5%, and the overall sum of trouble stopped just £7 million short of £100 million.
Fast forward via relegation to a fortnight ago and another website renowned for its exposure of financial issues in football, Two Hundred Percent, reflected on the further ballooning of the debt to the figure mentioned in the second paragraph above while highlighting Gartside’s presiding over this spiral, the over reliance on Davies and in particular his Bermuda based company, Moonshift, and the likely impact of financial fair play on a club who have relied on the sugar daddy model through good times and bad.
The defeat at Reading highlighted Dougie Freedman’s reliance on under-performing players and one could readily identify a lumbering and seemingly over weight Zat Knight, mardy Darren Pratley and languid front man David Ngog, misser of a golden chance to equalise with the deficit at a mere 1-0, as three of the chief culprits.
Elsewhere, left back Tim Ream looked woefully short of confidence in a position that has been a problem for Wanderers ever since Marc Tierney broke his ankle earlier in the season, Chung-Yong Lee was a shadow of the player who tore Premier League defences to bits when he first arrived at the club, Mark Davies and Jay Spearing tried manfully with nothing coming off, and Matt Mills, otherwise one of the team’s better performers this season, just had one of those nightmare days that arrives when opposing fans bear a grudge.
Neil Danns, another of the campaign’s modest success stories, struggled to make an impact against Reading’s pacey converted left back Jordan Obita, right back Alex Baptiste was continually caught out of position up field in a bid to chase the game and Andy Lonergan, despite calls for him to be replaced by Adam Bogdan from Bolton blog Lion of Vienna Suite, was largely blameless.
Meanwhile, a star studded cabal languish on the bench and treatment table – Medo, Chris Eagles, Jermaine Beckford and the desperately unlucky Stuart Holden.
But enough of the negatives. With the idea of trying to reignite a promotion push via the signing of Danny Graham clearly an example of throwing good money after bad and Nottingham Forest poised to land the big front man anyhow, what, should be Bolton Wanderers’ Plan B?
Well first of all, it would appear unfathomable that Gartside remain in the club chair. The phrase ‘in what other walk of life?’ is oft affixed to sentences of a footballing bent, but it’s hard to avoid in this case. Assuming that his wages remain above the half a million mark, isn’t it time to do the right thing and step down? Yes, there are mitigating circumstances – Bolton are not the only club in debt (Chelsea remain the most extreme of examples) and Gartside isn’t the only man who has ‘lived the dream’, but necessary downsizing is urgent and the continual Micawberism that something will ‘turn up’ has worn thin now.
Secondly – and sadly – the least spendthrift of Bolton Wanderers managers of recent times has also probably reached the end of the road. We have written before of the drawbacks of an ‘old pro’ policy and if most of the team’s lags are far from ancient, Knight for instance always seemed one of the most error prone of top flight defenders and Ngog’s barn door avoidance has often been in evidence. What are they offering now?
The players take almost all of the on field blame and it’s never easy stewarding a crew of relegated, unsettled men who are playing only to attract the attention of any given year’s Premier also-rans – but Dougie Freedman’s continual failure to pick any youngsters, while possibly a symptom of the threadbare cupboard, provides no medium term plan, let alone a long one. Take Sanmi Odelusi for instance, lively on his introduction here and author of two goals against Shrewsbury in the Capital One Cup back in August. He should have been blooded for more than his five substitute appearances.
With a number of high wage earners out of contract in the Summer, the club will be forced into an essential staff overhaul and AFC Bournemouth, relatively spendthrift themselves as they raced to promotion last year, have shown what can be achieved with an XI of hungry unknowns – the togetherness the Cherries showed during a recent victory at the Mad Stad could not have contrasted more greatly with the Trotters’ lacklustre efforts on Saturday.
Even Birmingham City, hardly a poster child for financial good husbandry, perhaps provide a hint as to the remedy required.
Yes, the second city Blues have been awful for much of this season; yes they remain in dire financial straits themselves, but this year’s swap of a superannuated squad for a collection of lower league wannabes and promising kids has seen them arguably over achieve following such drastic root and branch reform. The likes of Callum Reilly, Darren Randolph amd Andrew Shinnie have failed to pull up any trees but a faltering rebuild while improving the balance sheet is preferable to the kind of unrelenting financial mismanagement we see at the Reebok.
Bolton’s late run to within touching distance of the play-offs last year has perhaps convinced some fans that the same rabbit will be pulled out of the hat while that last retort of QPR and Portsmouth fans – that the owner is in it for the long haul – is an unconvincing argument in the light of the Brooks Mileson experience at Gretna. Bolton fans were admirable in their opposition to sponsorship from pay day lenders QuickQuid in June and are far too sensible a bunch to be hoodwinked into such continued reliance on a third party who could well disappear into a puff of smoke.
Bolton need to be looking at the ways things have been done and the talent emerging down the road at Burnley, Preston, Rochdale and elsewhere – clubs where cloth has been accordingly cut and youth products blended expertly with cut price deals – Georg Iliev may be one exemplar of the mythical Bulgarian influx whom Bolton may turn out to be grateful for while the arrival of Laste Dombaxe signals another potential low risk move.
All that ain’t gonna make that much of a dent in £163.8 million but as one message board Trotter mentioned this week, it will be a start and one can hope the fans of a great club can stick it out through the bad times and emerge reinvigorated. Bolton Wanderers need a change at the managerial and playing helm, a drastic overhaul of their on-field resources and some tough medicine. That way, longer route though it may be, will be the most sustainable approach to a restoration of their rightful status.