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Wandering to woe: Bolton's disastrous decline

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5th December, 2018

Entering the 2007-08 Premier League campaign, the Bolton Wanderers sat comfortably in the top flight of English football.

Coming off their sixth straight year in the first division, and the club’s highest ever finish of seventh place, expectations amongst fans ran high.

With a squad headlined by international stars Gary Cahill and Nicola Anelka, the Trotters reached the final sixteen of the UEFA Champions League, beating teams such as Atlético Madrid, and yet again avoided relegation – albeit by a single point.

However, Boltonians have since realised the difference a decade can make, as the once mighty Wanderers have crashed and burned into Premier League oblivion.

Bolton’s slide began in April 2007, when relations between manager Sam Allardyce and late chairman Phil Gartside began to strain. Allardyce, an ex-Wanderer himself and the man regarded as the catalyst for Bolton’s recent success had sought further financial backing to push for Champions’ League qualification.

But this request was met with dismay from Gartside, who quickly refused to sanction the increased spending. Despite sitting fifth in the Premier League with just two games remaining in the season, Allardyce resigned on April 29, much to the disgruntlement of Bolton supporters.


Allardyce’s departure commenced a steady decline for the Wanderers, who faced constant relegation battles and personnel changes over the next five years. From 2007-08 to 2010-2011, Bolton placed 16th, 13th, 14th and 14th in the Premier League.

The Wanderers’ 2011-12 campaign began on a sour note, losing six of their first seven premiership matches. Under new manager Owen Coyle, the club experienced an interrupted campaign with central midfielder Fabrice Muamba suffering a cardiac arrest during an FA Cup clash with Tottenham. In May 2012, the Bolton Wanderers were relegated on the last day of the Premier League season.

Fabrice Muamba is an example of the stress and pressure that players can face.

Bolton Wanderers’ Fabrice Muamba. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Seemingly, the Wanderers’ misery was at its peak. But, when things couldn’t get any worse, they did. Following a run of poor performances to start their quest for promotion, Coyle was dismissed mid-season in October 2012. His replacement, one-time Crystal Palace manager Dougie Freedman, would last just one season.

Now in $172.9 million worth of debt and under the rule of former Celtic manager Neil Lennon, the Trotters torment continued throughout 2015. A miserable seventeen game winless streak, followed by investigations into Lennon’s personal life crippled the Wanderers as they were relegated to the third tier for the first time since 1993.

So what has caused such a dramatic fall from grace? Like many before them, Bolton’s woes are largely caused by financial mismanagement. After eleven years in the world’s most lucrative football league, Bolton’s debts began to accumulate from outstanding player contracts and corporate loans.

Sitting less than ten miles from economic powerhouses Manchester City and Manchester United, attracting sponsors and the required finances proved no easy task. When asked about how he would conquer the ever-growing mountain of debt, Gartside simply replied, “I’m sick of answering that question”.

Additionally, substandard players have attracted exorbitant wages over the past decade, exhibiting the perplexing management of Phil Gartside. This is exemplified by Swedish striker John Elmander, who attracted a club record £8.2 million transfer fee and weekly wages in excess of £45,000.


Elmander would encounter an eleven month goalless drought and was eventually released on a free transfer – costing the Wanderers a total in excess of £15 million.

The Bolton Wanderers narrowly avoided involuntary cessation in 2016, only just raising the required funds to cover unpaid taxation – largely thanks to the club’s owner and staunch Bolton businessman Eddie Davis. The club was acquired in 2016 by Sports Shield, a company owned by ex-Bolton striker Dean Holdsworth.

The detrimental flow-on effect of this corporate strife is clear in Bolton’s cataclysmic on-field performances. Consequently, Bolton have been accused of ‘Doing a Leeds’ – a statement in English football referring to the demise of Leeds United FC in the early 2000s and illustrating the disastrous consequences of poor financial management.

Thankfully for Boltonians, the Wanderers have since regained their spot in the Championship, reigniting hopes that Premier League football will come trotting back to Macron Stadium one day soon.