Averaging a shade under 19 years, the Bolton XI that took on Coventry City in on August 10, 2019, was the youngest in its 145-year history.
The fact that players were dragged from the training pitches of Lostock to turn out in a professional match spoke volumes of the chaos at Bolton and might normally have been construed as a damning indictment of how far things had fallen.
Yet a team that will be forever known as the Junior Whites somehow managed to carve out a result against the Sky Blues and – for one blessed afternoon – take fans’ minds away from a summer of pain and concern.
Bolton rode their luck. Coventry had three goals scrubbed out for offsides, some of which bordered on the marginal, but detail of the game is incidental. What matters is why a bunch of teenagers were being asked to do men’s jobs – and why, in the end, the club had to risk serious punishment to prevent those same players from harm.
Just 10 days after the young team were cheered off by an appreciative crowd at the UniBol, Wanderers stepped in to cancel a home game with Doncaster Rovers, citing “player welfare” concerns. And to understand why, we must look at why they ran out against Coventry in the first place.
Wanderers’ remaining senior players were already at odds with the club’s administrators. After five months without pay from the club they had received some money before the Wycombe game – but deductions had been made to repay loans taken from the PFA, which left them feeling short-changed.
By the Wednesday, Phil Parkinson was already considering the thought that he would have to ‘play the kids’ but on Thursday, August 8, Laurence Bassini announced he had successfully gained an injunction to stop the sale of the club. Consequently, all hell broke loose.
Any hopes of convincing the senior players to face the Sky Blues was lost as joint administrator Paul Appleton released a statement expressing is “disgust and outrage” at Bassini’s last-minute actions.
With hindsight, the court order had been somewhat miscommunicated. But it was definitely enough to spook those involved into re-examining their legal documents, setting the whole process back another fortnight, and ensuring Bassini had at least one day in court.
At Lostock, however, the reins were handed over to Spooner and Gavin McCann, with Parkinson casting his eye over the Friday session.
“It was surreal, really,” Spooner explained. “The lads were treating it like a normal game and there were no nerves, partly because I think they all thought it would get sorted.
“We’d been through it that many times where the first team had been told one thing, then something else would happen, but it always ended up with them taking the pitch.
“This time, the closer we got to the game, the more we’re thinking ‘Christ, we’re actually going to be playing here!”
For Spooner – who had worked with Harry Brockbank since the age of eight, Ronan Darcy and Joe White since the age of nine, it was a proud day to see them run on as a team in League One. But that was not to say there were no concerns.
Matt Alexander, who at 17 had been one of the passengers in the car hurtling to Wycombe the Saturday morning prior, was about to have the game of his life.
Freed by Newcastle United last summer, there were concerns inside the camp whether the young keeper would actually stay in contention for a place in the Under-18s.
So as he waged a one-man war with Coventry’s impressive front line, Spooner was well aware a big story was being written.
“He was just outstanding,” he said. “We didn’t know what to do. We were just laughing.
“We’d gone to Cornwall to watch him in a trial match and we were thinking at the time ‘is this going to work?’ He’d never been away from Newcastle or moved into digs.
“And now we’re on the touchline watching him make save after save from a team that cost millions with the crowd singing that he should be England’s Number One.
“Me, Ben Williams and Lee Butler couldn’t stop smiling. It was just surreal.”
Every save, every challenge, every long punt clear was being cheered as if it was a 25-yard screamer and fuelled by the extra adrenaline, Bolton protected their clean sheet with fierce determination.
“We’d said to the lads before the game that they had to show how much they cared,” Spooner said. “Bolton Wanderers fans are sensible. They want hard work they can’t stand lazy.
“You can be the best player in the team but if you are not putting your foot in, they will suss you out quickly. And the last thing we wanted was for things to turn.
“I think Ronan Darcy won the ball early on and put Callum King-Harmes away – and it nearly blew the roof off.”
The Junior Whites deserved their day in the sun. Football, however, can be a cruel game. And the practicalities of life at Bolton would soon show through.
“When you look at it, they were in all the games they played until the physicality came into it,” Spooner said of the days ahead. “Coventry didn’t really do that. We just had to keep a shape.
“Tranmere we were doing OK until half time, it was the same at Gillingham – where there were a few silly mistakes.
“The kids can play football, there’s no problem with that, but when teams started figuring out that you didn’t need to play football against us, that’s when the goals started going it. They just started launching it.
The team was applauded off the pitch against Coventry, even embarking on a little lap of appreciation in what everyone thought would be a one-time gig.
A few days later, Jason Lowe, Luke Murphy and Remi Matthews returned to the side but five goals were shipped at Rochdale, then against Tranmere, Ipswich and Gillingham. The smiles were gone and there was genuine concern within the camp as to what damage was being done to young careers.
“We knew we’d had enough when Eddie Brown left the pitch in tears at Tranmere,” Spooner said. “It wasn’t fair on the lads. Ronan Darcy was the same at Gillingham, I think.
“We’d been waiting for the takeover to happen, and waiting, and waiting. When kids are making their debut they need to have 10 men around them.
“Callum King-Harmes’ stats were through the roof. He was giving absolutely everything he had. But the more experienced players were just picking them off.
“You look at how Luca Connell did the season before. He was helped through games and he got stronger and stronger.
“You can’t have someone like Sonny Graham coming up to me after a match and saying: ‘I’m just not good enough, am I?’ We knew it wasn’t right.”
The knock-on effects were being felt throughout the club, too, with Wanderers still obliged to fulfil fixtures at Under-16s and 18s level – where 14 and 15-year-olds were being asked to plug the gaps.
Although things settled slightly after the takeover, the damage was irreparable for the Under-23s who stumbled through a final season under David Lee without any semblance of a settled squad.
The decision has now been taken by the club to step down to a category three academy, which means Bolton will have no ‘reserve team’ for the first time in almost a century.
The lasting legacy for the Junior Whites, however, could be invaluable as football comes to terms with life after the coronavirus lockdown and the career of a footballer becomes more uncertain than at any time in living memory.
“I genuinely don’t know what will happen in the future,” Spooner said. “But nobody will ever be able to take that experience from those players. Lads like Callum King-Harmes and Joe White have six or seven first team appearances on their CV and they have showed they can put in performances at that level of football.
“And players like Ronan Darcy and Dennis Politic not only proved that, they went on and played regularly in the first team, so the whole experience was a positive.
“I keep saying it to the lads. They were lucky. A lot of very good players have come and gone at Bolton without ever getting that chance. And when you are given that opportunity you have to make the most of it.
“I think we’ll talk about that game for a long, long time.”