Since the club dropped out of the Premier League in 2012 it has been very difficult to escape that sinking feeling.
Even a League One promotion campaign in 2016/17 under Phil Parkinson was played out against a warring boardroom – and just weeks after Aaron Wilbraham’s famous survival-clinching strike against Nottingham Forest in the Championship the following year, the same striker was being told he wouldn’t be getting a goal bonus any time soon.
It seems any silver lining that has come Bolton’s way has been accompanied by a whopping big grey cloud – and it remains impossible to discuss the club’s recent history without churning up the misdemeanours of previous owners, or the litany of financial nightmares experienced since that grey day at Stoke City’s Britannia Stadium just over nine years ago.
Well, until now.
For the first time in a long while, Wanderers fans are starting to look forward to the future. Not only that - they are also enjoying what they see on the pitch. The whole club is in danger of cheering up.
Ian Evatt’s first season as manager has not been without its challenges but if HMS Wanderers can maintain their current course, League One football might just be the next destination.
No club in the whole Football League has been through the same tribulations as Bolton in the last decade, shared experiences which have shaped the mood of supporters and staff – and potentially made the whole community a tough nut to crack.
Different managers have employed different tactics for handling that ingrained sense of gloom.
Phil Parkinson joined in – his pragmatic demeanour and broad shoulders carried plenty of pressure in three years in the hotseat.
Keith Hill tried to add a touch of colour. “We’re 12 weeks out of a plane crash and we’re the sole survivors,” he once remarked.
The often-flowery rhetoric was not enough to save his job, however, and by the end of his tenure the normally chirpy Boltonian sounded just as glum as the rest of us.
When Ian Evatt was brought in from Barrow in the summer, concerns were voiced in some quarters over a lack of experience. A handful of proven candidates were interested and overlooked and the decision to go in a completely different direction looked exactly what it was, a gamble.
Evatt was instantly bold, brash and did not hide his ambition to get straight back into League One.
“This has been a big ship to turn around, there’s no doubt about it,” Evatt said earlier this month – way before the whole Suez Canal palaver. “The club has been used to losing matches for far too long.”
And how correct he was. Since falling out of the top-flight Bolton have played in 427 competitive games and won just 130, nearly a fifth of which came in that Parkinson promotion campaign. They have lost 188 times.
In the previous three seasons, Bolton had taken just 27.5 per cent of the points available to them, dropping to the fourth tier for only the second time in the club’s history with two successive relegations.
Evatt has most certainly not had things his own way from the start. He became the first Bolton manager to lose his first five competitive games and won only one of his first eight.
There have been calls for his head on social media, with Wanderers’ lowly league placing frequently referenced as evidence that this is ‘The Worst Bolton Team Ever’ (trademarked).
But somewhere in Lockdown Three that all changed. Wanderers put recruitment into the manager’s hands after the much-maligned head of football operations, Tobias Phoenix, left the building, and the results and performances that followed were just about as stark a contrast as it is possible to get.
Incredibly, this team still has an opportunity to surpass the class of 16/17, which won 28 of its 54 games that season, a win per centage of 51.8 per cent.
No team has ever come back from as far back in the second half of the season as Bolton to win automatic promotion in this division – which must now be the target after their longest run of unbeaten results in 22 years.
The club was placed 19th at the halfway stage with many of the glass-half-empty brigade maintaining Evatt should be looking over his shoulder at the likes of Grimsby, Southend and Barrow, rather than wasting his breath discussing the play-offs.
Now, even those hardly folk have been pleasantly surprised. And the stubborn foul mood which has enveloped the club over the last decade now shows signs of dissipating. Pride has slowly been restored on the pitch, even though the only way to measure fans’ approval has been on social media channels, rather than the ebb and flow of a stadium atmosphere.
“The supporters had lost all trust and faith in the football club for a number of reasons and I must say our board, the chairman Sharon, has been magnificent,” Evatt said. “She has rebuilt that trust with the community and the supporters again and that’s the start – get the fans back onside and be sure that the club is not going to end up where it nearly was, which was completely out of the Football League. We must not forget that we were 48 hours away from going out of business completely.
“The pandemic has been awful for so many reasons but in terms of us not having supporters in the stadium it has benefitted us at times this season. It has given us time to get our act together, get a structure and foundation in place for the club to progress.
“Hopefully, when we get this magnificent stadium back full again we will have something to sing and shout about. That is what we want.”
There is still plenty of work to do before Bolton can start planning for life in League One – but to instil some hope into the fanbase has already been a mighty achievement.
Evatt’s side is travelling well now. But wait until they are backed in person by the 12th man…
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