Why Bolton Wanderers were right to keep the top tiers open
The responsibility for generating a better atmosphere at the UniBol rests in the hands of 11 players on the pitch and a few in the dugout, not the couple of thousand high up in the stands.
Closing the upper tiers next season felt like it would have been a defeatist, conciliatory move. Wanderers’ focus should be solely on filling those empty seats – something which is infinitely easier to do when the team is getting results on the pitch.
Bolton look almost certain to be playing fourth tier football next season. And that stings the pride of a group of supporters with fresh memories of European adventures and a Premier League heyday.
In this current situation the club is a hard sell. Asking people to turn up every other week to watch a long walk to relegation requires a product people are at least curious to see. Right now, Bolton are struggling to deliver.
Four of the last five games at home have ended in defeat. Keith Hill insists he is making progress but a team which has been assembled and re-assembled at least twice this season is battling with paper-thin levels of confidence. Even the manager’s own relationship with the fanbase is showing signs of strain.
It is little wonder, then, that the atmosphere inside the stadium has often felt a little hollow of late.
Hill’s immediate task is to redress that balance, to find a level of consistency between now and May to convince people that next year will be better. It is then for the club’s owners to find a price point on the 2020/21 season tickets which ensures the regulars come back.
At this point in time it would have been folly to tell 2,000 people in the upper tiers that they had to move – presumably to the spare seats among existing lower tier fans.
The club’s chief executive, Emma Beaugeard, claimed last week that the decision would not be a financial one but the equation seems simple: Would potential the loss of season ticket revenue, and goodwill, be offset by the money saved on stewarding, cleaning and catering?
Considering prices for the upper tiers this season were £299 in the East and West Stand, it appears a fairly easy question to answer.
Whether the upper tiers are closed, partially closed or open, the mood of the fans will reflect what they are being served up on the patch of grass in front of them. It does not always hang on victory – as we saw earlier this season when the Junior Whites were cheered to the hilt – but winning games certainly helps, especially when the opposition happens to be Tranmere Rovers.
Wanderers’ supporters have shown remarkable patience in the last few seasons, and the numbers are holding up well. Average attendance at the UniBol is currently 11,480, still way over the average in the club’s 12 campaigns at this level of football, 7,730. Indeed, when Bolton last dropped into the fourth tier under Phil Neal in 1987 the average gate at Burnden Park was just 4,851.
To coin the old quote from Field of Dreams, ‘if you build it, they will come.’ Fans had issues with the direct football played under Phil Parkinson in 2016/17 en route to promotion and yet when the team got on a roll, or had promotion in their sights, crowds north of 20,000 were achieved.
Football Ventures arrived with a promise that they would look into the possibility of closing the upper tiers, and they did just that. All affected supporters were invited to give their input to a meeting held last week and they were left in no doubt how some long-standing supporters felt.
It was a big decision and one which has brought a surprisingly mixed reaction among the Bolton supporters. But the owners will find there are plenty more of those to come.
Whether in a one-tiered stadium, a two-tiered stadium or a park pitch, the core of Wanderers fans will turn out next season. Attracting bigger numbers takes realistic pricing and a winning team that can make sure both lower and upper levels of the UniBol are enjoying their football again.[You must be registered and logged in to see this link.]