BY DAN MURPHY
“A cold Tuesday night in…”
Once upon a time that old clichéd saying of, “But could he do it on a cold Tuesday night in…” used to finish with the word “Bolton”. Now that particular grand honour belongs to an equally metaphorically tough place to go, a place where the Lionel Messi’s and Neymar’s of this world must travel to in order to prove their worth to the world – Stoke City.
Bolton Wanderers and Stoke City are two football clubs that share a weird history. Well, it’s more of a sort of constant coincidence, as the two clubs’ paths have frequently seemed to intersect at key moments in their recent histories. It may have all began on 9th March 1946, the day 33 Bolton supporters lost their lives in a crush during an FA Cup quarter final. Often dubbed as the ‘forgotten disaster’, it was the worst tragedy in British football until Ibrox, 25 years later. Despite the match only being a few minutes old when the fatalities occurred, it was decided that the game would continue and the two sides played out a 0-0 draw. Only a by-line of saw dust separated the action from the deceased.
Fast forward several decades and an ASDA has taken Burnden Park’s place, it’s the first day of the 2008/09 season and Stoke City are playing their first ever game in the Premier League. It’s being held at the Reebok Stadium. The Potters were given a rude awakening to the hardships of top-flight football and Bolton went in at the break 3-0 up, courtesy of Gretar Steinsson, Johan Elmander and Kevin Davies. The game ended 3-1, with Stoke’s goal coming in the dying minutes, and a lesson of the Premier League’s difficulty was well and truly dealt to the newcomers.
As it was Bolton who welcomed Stoke to the Premier League, it seemed only fitting that the team in red and white waved them goodbye four years later. May 13th 2012, the final day of the season, after throwing away a two-goal lead in the previous game that would have kept them in the league, the Whites travelled to Stoke needing a win to survive. The bastardly Jonathan Walters scored first, in a sneeringly ironic fashion as he mimicked the eternal (Sir) Nat Lofthouse’s famous goal in the ‘58 FA Cup final by barging over Adam Bogdan, who had the ball firmly in his grasp, causing it to fall haplessly into the net. Referee Chris Foy somehow deemed this to be a legal and legitimate goal.
After a spirited comeback which saw Bolton leading for the most of the second half, it would be yet another controversial act from referee Chris Foy, who fell like a swooning maiden for Peter Crouch’s soft antics, and gave a penalty to Stoke. The aforementioned Walters thumped it home and condemned Bolton to the second tier; a place from which they still haven’t, and probably never will, recover.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment in which Bolton Wanderers truly began on the path of complete and utter calamity. Was it when the gravy-infused Sam Allardyce, citing a lack of ambition, left the club? Maybe it was his long list of clueless successors? Perhaps it was when top prick Jonny Evans decided to implant the entirety of his studs into Stuart Holden’s knee? Or was it the multiple occasions when the club showed their complete business ineptitude and insisted on giving awful, aging players lengthy, big money contracts?
All have no doubt played their part in setting the once feared, hated and secretly admired club on a downward trajectory towards the edge of existence. There’s one moment, however, that Bolton fans may never be able to forget. And yes, once again, it concerns Stoke City: Wembley.
I don’t really need to explain much more but why not, eh? The 2010/11 season was quite easily the best season to be a Bolton fan since Allardyce’s departure. Yes, there were the heroics of Munich and Madrid, but all those came with the caveat of having Gary Megson as manager, who is still despised by every single supporter. In case you didn’t know, that’s because he sacrificed a place in the UEFA Cup quarter final, playing a severely weakened team in Lisbon, to concentrate on the upcoming relegation scrap with Wigan. Both games were lost.
That season under Owen Coyle, however, saw everything go just right, at least for a little while. Stuart Holden was the best central midfielder in the Premier League, Johan Elmander had finally found his elusive shooting boots, Bolton were playing stylish, attacking football and instead of being in dogged relegation fights they were actually challenging at the upper end of the table once again. Oh, and they got to Wembley.
Having avoided the two Manchester clubs in the draw, confidence was high amongst supporters and it really felt as if the club would return to the stage that they’re most associated with for the first time since that fabled day in 1958. It was not to be. Injury hit to the extent that the top goal scorer was playing in centre-midfield, Stoke bullied, battered and bruised Bolton into submission, destroying the team from Lancashire by five goals. Although Wanderers earned a quick reprieve by beating Arsenal in the following game, and even beating Stoke 5-0 the following season, they never really recovered from that humiliation and slid down the table for over a year until they left the Premier League for the first time in 11 seasons the following Spring.
Skip forward another four years and the two clubs couldn’t be further apart. On Boxing Day, a couple of hours before Bolton were unmercifully spanked by fellow relegation candidates Rotherham United, Stoke comfortably beat Manchester United in a performance of spontaneous attacking verve and dogged, pragmatic resilience. That win itself coming only a few weeks after they’d done the same thing to the other Manchester club. On the January transfer window Deadline Day, when Stoke were breaking their transfer record to pay £18.3million for Giannelli Imbula, Bolton found themselves under an embargo unable to re-sign Shola Ameobi, even after he offered to play for free, and also desperately trying to keep hold of prized asset Zach Clough. Stoke are currently 9th in the Premier League with ambitions of being much higher, whereas Bolton are rock bottom of the Championship, already relegated to League One.
Wanderers are on course for their worst season history, and they got in this mess because former owner, and now honorary president (*heaves*) Eddie Davies decided he was no longer willing to invest and bankroll the club. He had supposedly received several bids for the club’s acquisition, most notably from two separate consortiums led by two former players, Dean Holdsworth and Stelios Giannakopoulos, and another from Egyptian billionaire Rodger Tamraz, but for months none of them were able to satisfy Davies’ demands.
Although the club was technically on sale for just a single English pound and the majority of the £185million which is owed to Davies was apparently going to be wiped, the owner wanted assurances from would-be buyers that they had sufficient funds to pay off various loans and could keep the club running for the rest of the season. While Davies’ care in that regard was appreciated, it’s his care that was killing the club. Besides, the whole situation certainly appeared superficial to a number of fans.
Bolton were back in court on February 22nd, and they came alarmingly close to being wound up by the HRMC for an unpaid tax bill. Wanderers only earned themselves a stay of execution at the last possible moment when a ‘buyer witness statement’, confirming intent of purchase and confirmation of adequate funding from Dean Holdsworth’s Sports Shield Consortium, was finally handed to HRMC half an hour before the court hearing began. They were given another two-week adjunction and in that time the club, after a long and strenuous battle, was finally sold.
Sports Shield and business man Ken Anderson are now joint owners of Bolton Wanderers, each having a 50% stake in the club, which should hopefully put an end to the madness. But things are rarely that simple for the Whites, and concerns remain amongst many supporters about the structure of the new ownership and the amount of money they possess, especially since income will be dramatically less in League One and financial regulations are tighter.
Regardless of the future, the last few months have been a period of perpetual stress and anxiety for everyone associated with Bolton. Players and staff alike had to live under the threat of not being paid for their work, several players had contracts mutually terminated and the whole resolve and spirit of the club was massively strained by a constant moving of the goalposts by Davies and near complete lack of transparency and communication to supporters. While all the stress about finances and selling the club was going on, the team was in a state of turmoil and Bolton chairman Phil Gartside sadly passed away. It’s been a year in which absolutely everything has gone wrong.
It’s almost impossible to explain how dire the club’s situation really was, so much so that people had to start savouring every shit match they attended, as it may just have been the last.
It was fucking awful.
So seeing Stoke City, the club who kicked Bolton in the balls and spat in their eyes as they fell down the football hierarchy, continuing to reach dizzy new heights with talent that is, on paper, far beyond their name, brings a bitter concoction of jealousy to one’s stomach.
It’s not just because of all the pain they’ve dealt Wanderers, it’s because when I look at Stoke City I see the Bolton Wanderers side of old; a team of hard bastards who fought their way up to the top division by smashing balls up to the big striker and bullying anyone in their way. A team who, when they finally reached the promised land, soon became hated by all and were branded with labels that were supposed to offend, but only galvanised pride. A team that opposition managers began to despise, mostly because their star prospects tended to leave the game on crutches. A team who, over time, began to shake off those stereotypes and bring in renowned talent from across the globe. A team who then started to play simply brilliant football, handily beating the so called ‘big sides’ at their own fancy game and began challenging at the upper echelons of the league, earning themselves unforgettable European tours in the process.
The two clubs are practically symmetrical, however, the Potters have gone about things slightly differently and thus it may mean the club will remain a lot more stable and continue to compete for years to come. The legends that defined the Allardyce era, the Jay-Jay Okochas, Ivan Campos, Fernando Hierros and Youri Djorkaeffs of this world, were all signed on big wages as the last glimmering embers of their fantastic careers were burning out. This meant there was next to no room for Wanderers to spin profit on them, so despite the unforgettable times they gave to the fans, the club lost money on them all.
On the other hand, Stoke have signed players whose careers are just beginning. They’ve recruited unquestionable young talent, but talent that, up until now, has never been truly fulfilled. Shunned La Masia graduate Bojan, Marko Arnautović, who was once described by Jose Mourinho as “a fantastic person (with) the attitude of a child” and Xherdan Shaqiri, who could never quite fight his way into the Bayern side, may all be Champions League medal holders, but none of them have yet proven that they can live up to their billing on a consistent basis.
They’re all doing so right now however, which means that, as the dog-eat-dog world of the Premier League often is, supposed bigger and better teams may soon be circling over the Britannia (Bet365?) like a gang of ravenous vultures. Contrary to some fans’ beliefs that wouldn’t be the end of the world though, as the profit that will undoubtedly be made will enable the cycle to begin once more. In theory, it’s a circle of life that could see Stoke hanging around at the top for a long, long time.
Bolton Wanderers’ last goal in the Premier League was scored by Kevin Davies, which is an awfully apt lasting legacy as Davies was the player that completely epitomised Wanderers in the glory years; an underdog who wasn’t afraid to give the big boys a bloody nose or a snapped metatarsal. A team who aspired to be more than what they were supposed to be in a shackled world of limited success, reaching heights that were never expected. Stoke City’s season may have started to peter out as injuries have struck down hard, but they have taken that mantle and they’re running with it, and it looks like they may never stop.