The sun-kissed season opener at Wycombe in August now seems like it was played in a different world. A team only given the go-ahead by the EFL to play at Adams Park on the morning of the game, a huge away following determined to show their love for the club, not knowing perhaps that the toughest times were still to come.
Those fraught times of administration, courtroom drama, boycotts, claim and counter claim left everyone reeling but when the takeover finally happened, a sense of rebirth.
New owners in Football Ventures, a new management team in Keith Hill and David Flitcroft, and a raft of new faces to cheer on. Even giving League One a 11-point head start didn’t seem like too big a hurdle to negotiate.
But the optimism felt in those later summer days was always destined to fade, replaced by the reality of a club still trying to piece itself together. The honeymoon period ended, injuries kicked in, and results left the fanbase thoroughly annoyed that a season was over before we even got into March. How prophetic that thought may yet turn out to be.
Could Wanderers have been saved? Perhaps a redundant argument in the current climate. When football returns in any guise it will surely be readily accepted.
But how will the history books judge players who will almost certainly be tagged with the dubious privilege of leading Bolton into the bottom division for only the second time in their history?
General consensus among supporters is that the club’s captain, Jason Lowe, has been the most consistent of an inconsistent bunch.
Though the midfielder suffered under the weight of responsibility at times in the Championship his performances have generally been well-received in League One. Even his critics would concede that Lowe’s work off the pitch for Bolton has been exemplary, lodging him firmly into the ‘good professional’ category, yet his natural defensive instincts make him a more popular figure in the dugout than on the terraces.
Remi Matthews is another player who has battled against criticism since the turn of the season and, like Lowe, was one of a handful who can vouch for what a mess the club was in during the Ken Anderson days.
The keeper has faced more shots on target than any other in League One and played more minutes than anyone else in the Bolton squad, due in the main to the lack of a senior competitor since Ben Alnwick’s departure.
He has, at times, been a one-man wall stopping a landslide of goals, particularly in the early weeks of the season when he was playing behind a vastly under-experienced team.
And yet compelling statistics are not enough to convince some that the former Norwich stopper does not fully deserve his spot as the unchallenged Wanderers number one – with the common criticism levelled at him being a lack of command in the penalty box.
Top scorer Daryl Murphy has had to shoulder the attacking burden for most of the season, and at the age of 37 he has done pretty well to feature in the majority of Bolton’s games.
Cast so often as the target man up front, there have been times when the Irishman wore his frustration quite visibly. But with eight goals already on the pile, it seems entirely feasible that he will get into double figures during the remaining 10 games, whenever or however they are played. And that has only happened for five Wanderers players in the last decade.
The old saying about absence making the heart grow fonder was never truer than of Scottish playmaker Ali Crawford, whose knee injury in October coincided with a marked decline for manager Hill’s results.
Crawford had become the fulcrum of Wanderers’ midfield, offering a level of creativity and incision of passing that few others in the side could replicate. And when he was ruled out for four months after a game against Manchester City’s Under-23s, the team never looked the same again.
His recent return has offered glimpses of what was lost, albeit it was a huge physical ask to come straight back in after so long on the side-lines. If he can be convinced to stay in League Two, very few Bolton fans would complain.
Youth stepped up to the plate in those early weeks of the season and near enough anyone who represented the so-called Junior Whites will be remembered for many years to come. The reality is, however, that very few were able to cement a first team position after Hill’s arrival.
Ronan Darcy profited from Crawford’s absence and showed himself to be a midfielder of real promise.
Boasting a phenomenal work ethic and an eye for goal, the academy graduate has unfortunately found himself in a difficult contractual position which has cast a shadow over the progress he has made this season.
Wanderers want to tie him to a professional contract but his current scholar status means a rival club could pick Darcy up for a comparatively cheap amount of compensation. And having list Luca Connell in similar circumstances to Celtic over the summer, to see another homegrown talent go the same way would be heart-breaking indeed.
Darcy has found himself out of the limelight just recently, due in the main to a foot injury reported by the club. He has the potential, however, to be a crowd favourite next season regardless of his ties to the current campaign – assuming, of course, that his contract is signed.
Another academy product to have shown tangible progress this season is Dennis Politic, a player who, like Darcy, looks to be a poster child for a bright Wanderers future.
The Romania-born winger was the standout player early in the season when his team-mates were of similar age and after a brief spell acclimatising to the physical demands his manager would place upon him, he has turned heads in recent months too.
When Thibaud Verlinden retuned to Stoke City the team was left with very little width, nor a player able to carry the ball at pace. Politic may not have explosive, off the mark speed, but his ability to go comfortably either side of a defender makes him unique in the current squad.
Like Crawford, Verlinden’s effect on the Bolton squad was all-too-short. He returned to the Potteries at the start of January and suffered an unfortunate knee injury which left him unable to show his parent club exactly how far he had progressed. But the Belgian winger has the tools to succeed at Championship level, if his spell at Bolton is anything to go by.
Whether there is time for other players to finish the season strongly and secure themselves an honourable mention, we will see.
Relegation is not yet mathematically assured and yet the trend of results in the build-up to football being paused pointed to it being confirmed this very weekend, when Wanderers were due to play against Fleetwood Town.
Dropping down to League Two never seemed like a particularly big deal after all the club had been through, and even less so now that the whole country has bigger things to worry about.
All we can hope for is that there will be a footballing future for Bolton and all the other league clubs – and then perhaps trivial matters like player ratings can once again feel important once again?