There was a time in the not-so-distant past when Bolton Wanderers offered sublime evidence that every modest town had the right to a seat at football’s top table.
Sam Allardyce danced on the pitch with Jay-Jay Okocha, new signing Nicolas Anelka sank Arsenal and the club that contested the 1923 ‘White Horse’ FA Cup final and the 1953 Matthews Final felt blissfully renewed.
That was the early years of the 21st century. In the here and now, they are a battered, broken emblem of one of the most pitiful aspects of the modern game: the obscene investment in players by clubs desperate to remain aboard the Premier League gravy train.
Bolton were once evidence every modest town had the right to a seat at football’s top table
Sam Allardyce brought Bolton up to the Premier League and took them into Europe
Many clubs have been crippled in that process — Portsmouth, Leeds United, Wimbledon — but few have suffered such a dismally drawn-out demise as Bolton.
The shocking decline reveals that it doesn’t take a remote overseas proprietor to damage a football club.
Only when annual results were published in December 2013 did we begin to appreciate how much red ink they were drowning in. There was £168.3million of debt, to be precise.
Bolton’s gamble of speculating to accumulate was credible for as long as they had a manager capable of laying good bets. Sam Allardyce certainly was one such individual and so, too, Gary Megson, whose lack of popularity with the club’s fans belied a wise £50m outlay.
He brought in Gary Cahill when Aston Villa’s Martin O’Neill wasn’t much interested in him.
Jay-Jay Okocha celebrates scoring the winner against Tottenham in March 2003
The roots of what, by 5pm on Tuesday, could be Football League expulsion and subsequent liquidation, lay in what followed.
Still bankrolled by Eddie Davies, who made his fortune producing kettle thermostats, Bolton had a year or so of all-or-nothing economics under the management of Owen Coyle.
It was the story of overrated players, being signed for excessive fees, paid excessive wages and released for next to nothing. David Ngog, signed from Liverpool for £4m, earned £35,000 a week to sit on the bench, where he was prepared to stay until his contract ran out.
Chris Eagles (£30,000 a week) was in the same wage bracket, while Bolton dealt away transfer fees like confetti.
Danny Shittu cost £2.2m and played 10 games. Marvin Sordell (£3.2m) played 25 games and scored four goals. One court case, involving a disgruntled player representative, revealed Bolton’s willingness to pay £300,000 in agent fees for a £1m deal.
Gary Megson brought in Gary Cahill when Martin O’Neill and Aston Villa did not want him
David Ngog, signed from Liverpool for £4m, earned £35,000 a week to sit on the bench
And then, in 2015, Davies indicated his intention to sell. There are suggestions that he did not want a foreign buyer, preferring a Bolton fan like himself, but it was his disinclination to give the club much time which proved fatally difficult, demonstrating what happens when a culture of dependency takes hold.
‘Davies left them in the lurch,’ one executive familiar with the club’s situation at that time tells Sportsmail. ‘They needed £15m to see out the end of the season. They sold the car park and training ground just to find the money.
‘There were players on well-paid, longer-term contracts. They needed working capital.’
The club did what people do when their bank refuses an overdraft extension, as Bolton’s did: pursued high-interest arrangements.
Then, as now, few wanted to buy a small-town club on its uppers. The eventual buyer, Ken Anderson, did not exactly bite Bolton’s hands off at the time and there was not much evidence that he could ever help the club which he saw into administration — so bust they have been forced to play youth team players in League One this season.
Owner Ken Anderson paid himself £525,000 and his son £125,000 for ‘consultancy services’
One well-placed source insists that despite Bolton fans’ antipathy, Anderson has kept the club afloat for three years. The businessman paid himself £525,000 and his son £125,000 for ‘consultancy services’.
A route out of the purgatory seemed to have been provided by Football Ventures, a community-based consortium of individuals who are not wealthy but might at least provide stability.
But a dispute between Anderson and trustees of the Eddie Davies Trust has scuppered hopes of a deal. It is thought to centre on whether Anderson will have any future liability for £7.5m bridging loans and other cash he received from the Trust when he bought the club.
In 12 days’ time, Bolton are scheduled to face Bury, with whom they are locked in the same struggle with oblivion. The Sunday lunchtime fixture is to be televised.
Schedulers are already preparing for alternatives.