John Thomas remembers Phil Neal’s mission statement as he prepared to sign for Bolton Wanderers in the old Division Four.
“He sat me down,” said the former striker. “He didn’t need to sell the club to me because I’d only left in 1982 – I knew what playing for Bolton meant and all about the size of the club.
“But Phil told me ‘John, I need goals from you, because this club doesn’t want to be in this division any longer than it needs to be.”
Some 33 years later, Ian Evatt may well have sat Eoin Doyle and had the same sort of conversation as Wanderers embarked on only their second season at this level of football.
But the Whites are finding out as they did back in the late eighties that all the history, fanbase and reputation in the world won’t earn points on their own.
“You found every week back then that teams were raising their game,” Thomas explained. “There were some big clubs around – Wolves, ourselves, Burnley – but you knew those Bolton fans expected a win every week, and they travelled in their thousands everywhere we went.
“It was never going to be easy. I remember going up to Scarborough early on in the season and getting absolutely trounced. Teams came to Burnden and beat us as well – Hartlepool were one of them.
“It was like an FA Cup final every time we turned up and I imagine it’s the same for this team too. They have to raise their game.”
[You must be registered and logged in to see this image.]
Wanderers welcome Newport County to the UniBol this weekend in what will be the Exiles’ first trip to the town since a 6-0 defeat at Burnden that spelled the end of a 50-year stay in the Football League back in 1988.
Back then, Newport had gone from the quarter final of a major European competition in the Cup Winner’s Cup to the foot of Division Four in just a few years. The club was disintegrating and on the verge of losing their historic home at Somerton Park.
Thomas scored a hat-trick that day and still has the match-ball sitting in his home office.
“I don’t remember that much about the game, although I know I got one from the penalty spot,” he said. “But I remember that Paul Bradshaw was in goal because I played with him at West Brom a few years later and used to joke I’d bring the ball in for him to sign.”
Trevor Morgan, Mark Winstanley and Steve Thompson were also on the scoresheet against a weakened Welsh side, who a few weeks earlier had put a youth team out at Torquay United. As the story goes, the youngsters had to wash their own kit after a 6-1 drubbing as the club could not afford washing powder.
The two clubs meet again in extraordinary circumstances on Saturday in what will be Bolton’s fourth home game played behind closed doors.
The financial impact of empty stadia is a universal one but some clubs appear to cope with the unique environment created by an empty ground better than others.
“I should think some players might enjoy it,” Thomas said. “Those who get a bit more nervous won’t have the expectation of thousands of people screaming at them.
“I used to thrive off the noise of the crowd, so I don’t think I would have liked it. And at Bolton, it has always been a big factor, you can always rely on the fans giving you an extra lift, especially away from home.
“I’m sure the club can’t wait to get fans back in. Until they do they will have to find a way of getting results.
“I know it’s a new team and there are a lot of new players. It might take some time before everyone knows each other properly and get that confidence flowing again.
“Brian Kidd used to say you can’t turn form on and off like a tap. You have to earn it, and I remember when we were down there in Division Four there were teams who couldn’t wait to come and play Bolton.”
[You must be registered and logged in to see this link.]