Even by the standards set over the last five years, it has been a calamitous few weeks for Bolton Wanderers. The club’s players appealed to the Professional Footballers’ Association after they failed to receive November’s wages; Norwich City recalled Remi Matthews from his loan after expressing their concern that he had not been paid.
The club then banned excellent local journalist Marc Iles, citing his use of a ‘disrespectful’ gif on Twitter. Supporters protested before and after the FA Cup tie against Walsall. And Forest Green Rovers accused owner Ken Anderson of negligence over his broken promises surrounding the transfer of Christian Doidge. Bolton’s advent calendar contained something brown behind every daily window, but it wasn’t chocolate.
Anderson’s response merits reading several times to appreciate fully. “Despite the regular references to the non-payment of players’ salaries, the reality is that the majority of the players’ salaries have only been paid late once in nearly three years since I have been at the club,” he said via a club statement on Tuesday. “I really do hope that this can now be the end of this saga and that we can all now focus on getting behind the team and management and getting the results we so dearly need to help us climb the table.”
That is some supreme ‘nothing to see here’ work. It’s like Edward Smith, captain of the Titanic, expressing his offended disappointment that passengers are focusing purely on the negatives. ‘You hit one iceberg and nobody shuts up about it. Can’t you all just focus on reaching New York?’
By Wednesday afternoon, Anderson again used Bolton’s official website as his teenage diary, calling owner Dale Vince the strangest person he had ever met in the game, attacking fans organising protests, citing the club’s stadium hosting rugby league matches and concerts as a high point of his ownership and quoting English poet John Lydgate and Winston Churchill. No Bolton Wanderers club statement is worth missing.
📰 A note from the Chairman. Ken Anderson addresses the club's supporters in his latest column on the club's official website,
— Bolton Wanderers FC (@OfficialBWFC) January 9, 2019
Once, many moons and several managers ago, Bolton were the poster boys of provincial club Premier League over-achievement. Those were the days of Jay-Jay Okocha free-kicks and big clubs with bruised noses, when Sam Allardyce would say the name “Youri” as if he were describing his first-born child and every kid in Farnworth wanted curly hair like Ivan Campo.
Now they are emblematic of a different message, an Icarus tale of financial ruin that shows signs of escalating and unravelling even further in 2019.
This is not all on Anderson. Former chairman Phil Gartside, once a paragon of football club stewardship, gained a reputation within the game for paying exorbitant fees to agents that sometimes reached 30% of transfer fees. Let’s give the lawyers a day off and conclude that Bolton fell foul of a commonplace mistake: handing out lofty wages and long contracts to expensive players who promptly grossly underachieved.
Relegation from the top flight in 2012 was not followed by swift promotion, meaning Bolton were living a Premier League lifestyle on Football League budgets. By 2014, their debts were calculated to be £168.3m. That’s almost seven times the cost of building the Reebok Stadium, now sponsored by the local university.
But if Anderson didn’t start the fire, the accusation from Bolton supporters is that he has wandered around the club carelessly with a lit cigarette and petrol can. Taking over in March 2016, he was tasked with leading Bolton away from economic despair. Three years later, the situation is more fraught still.
It is worth detailing – for completeness’ sake, you understand – Anderson’s business history. He was disqualified from being a company director for eight years in 2005 after being found guilty of misdemeanours relating to eight different companies, including diverting funds from businesses to his personal account. Having bought Bolton for a nominal fee of £1, he paid himself £525,000 in consultancy fees in his first year, according to The Times. The legal accusations made by Forest Green owner Vince may well be explored further.
In September, Bolton only avoided administration after former owner Eddie Davies – who had already written off vast debts – gave the club £5m days before he passed away. In the summer, players had gone on strike and refused to play a friendly against St Mirren over unpaid wages and bonuses. The squad issued a statement detailing ‘unacceptable treatment’ at the hands of their club.
It’s time to mention actual football, although the future is no less bleak there. Bolton have won five of their 26 Championship games – and two of the last 22 – and sit in the bottom three. In their last league game at Hull City, they conceded five times in 20 second-half minutes. Having inspired a mini-miracle to keep Bolton out of League One last season, manager Phil Parkinson has run out of water to turn into wine.
Owner Anderson’s principal response appears to be burying his head into the sand – the ‘No Ken do’ attitude. Supporters groups have expressed anger at his lack of communication, players have revealed their frustration at the club’s operations and fans have now had enough. Banning Iles, ostensibly for doing his job and doing it well, was a disastrous PR move on Anderson’s part. There is a general rule here: Football clubs don’t ban journalists unless they have something to hide.
Financial crisis can unite a football club. These are social institutions, propped up by the cares and memories of tens of thousands of people and therefore almost magically resilient. Supporters and communities come together in the hope of saving something special. Just ask Portsmouth, now only three places below Bolton in the Football League ladder.
It therefore takes some doing to kill hope within a football club, but Anderson has already administered plenty of the thousand required cuts. Unless he leaves, Bolton supporters believe, the club will never move away from the edge of the cliff.
Until then, this famous old club will record only infamy and lurch closer to financial oblivion. “This time next year we’ll be millionaires,” as those other famous Trotters once believed. Right now, even pocket money is a pipe dream.