First there were onions, then there were tears.
The unsuccessful reign of Keith Hill will forever be accompanied by an asterisk, which is just as well, as it seldom felt like a normal manager’s job.
A premature curtailment of the League One season after a few months in lockdown possibly spared the Boltonian the worst of supporters’ criticism, which had been bubbling to the surface at the turn of the year.
His Impossible Dream had proved just that. And from January onwards Wanderers had been a shell of a team going through the motions of a relegation, which was hard to watch.
And so it was with diminished fanfare that Bolton announced Hill and assistant David Flitcroft’s contract would not be renewed yesterday, some 93 days after they had last stood in the dugout during a 2-2 draw at Burton Albion.
By that stage it was hard to tell if even Hill believed he would get the opportunity to continue in League Two, as the club he had walked into the previous August had changed its policies significantly.
Football Ventures were just hours into their ownership of the club when they were forced to decide on who would replace Phil Parkinson – a manager they had done their level-best to talk into staying to provide some stability.
Hill had been out of work for a few months but his locality and ready-made plan for recruitment got him the nod over ex-Bolton captain Kevin Nolan, who would arguably have been more of a crowd-pleasing appointment.
It was with a wave of optimism and energy that he and Flitcroft strode into the building, beaming with pride at the thought of leading their hometown club. It is sad that the practicalities of Wanderers’ situation in the league made that positivity such a short-lived thing.
Reality practically slapped Hill and Flitcroft in the face at Rotherham United in their first league game in charge, Thibaud Verlinden’s early goal giving them a honeymoon period of all of 10 minutes before the Millers went on to rattle six past Remi Matthews.
Such jolts would become a familiar theme. As Bolton hauled themselves back into positive equity with a third-straight win against MK Dons in mid-November, the prospect of clawing back 12 points on the teams above the relegation zone in the space of 30 games seemed entirely possible.
And then, on a grey day in East Lancashire flanked by a raucous and expectant travelling support, Bolton were embarrassed by Accrington Stanley to the point they never really recovered.
There were a few signs of fight – a win against Southend United, a stubborn draw at Parkinson’s Sunderland on Boxing Day – but they were always accompanied by a rabbit-punch. Defensive capitulation against Burton on New Year’s Day was just such an occasion.
But the turn of 2020 was symbolic for more than just the 4-3 defeat, it was also the time at which Wanderers’ ownership started to change the direction the club would take in the transfer market.
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Ex-Manchester United and Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon had been an advisor from the start – but he took a much more progressive role in the winter window, which included the installation of a head of football operations in ex-Macclesfield Town man and football agent, Tobias Phoenix.
Hill had been appointed as part of the Made in Bolton mantra, which felt like a comfortable arm around the shoulder at a time when fans were just happy to still have a club to support.
But the change of mood in January was almost clinical. And the manager – not one to easily hide his feelings – was clearly rattled by the new influences above his head.
The head of recruitment, Irfan Kawri, was told his contract would not be renewed, removing another of Hill and Flitcroft’s confidants from the equation, and with Wanderers now talking confidently of a new analysis-based recruitment approach, the incumbent manager looked out of synch.
While there may be some sympathy for the fact Hill and Flitcroft were no longer doing the job they had originally signed on for – the statistics will always show that his winning percentage as manager was lower than 15 of his last 16 predecessors.
Only Roy McFarland, whose dreary record of five wins from 28 in charge was accomplished in the Premier League, can match Hill’s six wins from 33 (a percentage of 18.18).
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Once again, his lack of success does have its caveats. The frantic nature with which the squad was assembled meant that players arrived in all stages of fitness – and the half-dozen players who had trained through a disruptive summer at Lostock were also in mixed shape. As such, injuries to keep players were a frequent problem that Hill struggled to escape.
Some of the absences were ludicrously bad luck. Joe Bunney, barely a week after signing for Bolton, was involved in a car crash which ruled him out for months. Will Buckley shattered his kneecap after colliding with a team-mate on the training ground and playmaker Ali Crawford, around whom the game-plan had been based, suffered a horrible cruciate ligament tear playing in a pointless cup competition against Manchester City’s Under-23s.
It must also be said that Bolton had to assemble a squad in 48 hours under the framework of an EFL transfer embargo – the rules of which remain dark, mysterious, and unconfirmed.
On paper, however, this was a Bolton team with a Championship spine – Remi Matthews, Jack Hobbs, Jason Lowe, Daryl Murphy – which looked on paper to have enough about it to get more results than it did.
Hill had been known for attacking, high-tempo football at Rochdale but he found it difficult to replicate on a bigger stage. Part of that had been down to the unpredictability of his team’s fitness but behind closed doors there were whispers of fall-outs and a general sense that the team could no longer be motivated.
Despite efforts to tighten up on some of the technical aspects of defending Wanderers remained frighteningly vulnerable at set pieces, or what Hill liked to term the “red zones” at the start and end of each half.
And rightly or wrongly, the manager was often castigated for his turn of phrase. Hill maintained he was being “too honest” by saying striker Muhammadu Faal was “nowhere near ready” or that Yoan Zouma was “naïve” – but it was a post-match rant after defeat to his former club Rochdale that really sparked controversy.
Speaking after the game Hill claimed that various elements of the club were “not on the same page” and that he had been unfairly criticised in the press.
“I don’t read a paper, I don’t read Twitter, I am sick of people telling me.
“People who are trying to protect me are telling me; Flicker (assistant manager David Flitcroft), my family, my friends.
“[Others need to] get some perspective, get some reality and start supporting this team’s rebuild.”
It was in the same interview that he heralded an encouraging debut by Manchester United loanee Ethan Hamilton by proclaiming he “knew his onions” – a throwaway remark which would come back to haunt him.
Anyone who had seen Hill in the dugout for the last decade or more will know he is prone to the odd left-field comment. And in good times, it is most certainly part of the charm.
But with results and performances dropping below an acceptable standard the purple prose was also starting to agitate those in the positions of power at the UniBol, and the Spotland meltdown might just have been one outburst too far.
Hill did his best to shrug off the fall-out, adding: “My support of the club, the staff, the local area is passionate and sometimes it’s too raw.
“But it’s a love and a protection mechanism I have used to support the players and the people who employ me.
“I have not meant to offend anybody. If I have and they can’t deal with it then unfortunately that’s life.”
But with questions now being asked about what input he had in January signings, and what his relationship with Keyon and Phoenix was like, the final few weeks before lockdown would see Hill present a slightly more reserved front.
The club put a stop on any football staff doing interviews after the start of April, which left Hill, Flitcroft and Co unable to voice their opinions on the EFL vote, the season just gone, or Wanderers consequent relegation. And considering the warmth and pride the two Boltonians spoke with nine months earlier in their first press conference, it is a sad thing indeed that they should bow out in silence.
Wanderers must rebuild in uncertain times next season. It remains to be seen what effect the pandemic has had on finances, and whether that has changed plans on recruitment.
Whatever the ownership’s strategy, they must make sure that the next managerial appointment reflects their thoughts for longer than was the case with Keith Hill.
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