“Bolton is going to be a ghost town,” the club’s chief executive, Neil Hart, says as he looks forward to the Papa John’s Trophy final against Plymouth that will bring 34,000 of their fans to Wembley on Sunday. It is a huge turnaround for Wanderers, who were almost a ghost club, coming close to going out of business in 2019 after being issued with a winding-up petition.
Football Ventures purchased Bolton from Ken Anderson in the summer of 2019 but it took time to turn the ship around after years of decline. Trust with the supporters and local businesses needed to be rebuilt after a breakdown in relations over the way the club had been run by previous owners.
After back-to-back relegations, Bolton struggled to adapt to life in League Two, a 6-3 home defeat by Port Vale in December 2020 arguably the nadir. By mid-January they were 17th in the fourth tier but surged up the table under Ian Evatt, earning automatic promotion.
The upward trajectory has continued and Bolton are in their second consecutive season in League One, pushing for promotion with a bonus day out under the arch to celebrate their progress. “It’s not the be-all and end-all if we do get beat on Sunday,” says Ian Bridge, the secretary of the Bolton Wanderers Supporters’ Trust. “It will be a very good day out. After what we have been through in recent years, Bolton fans just want to be able to go watch our club on a Saturday afternoon rather than worrying about owners and winding-up orders.”
Staff and players had gone unpaid, resulting in tears in the office when the new chairman, Sharon Brittan, arrived with cake in 2019 after completing the purchase. Hart was a key appointment in 2021 to improve the club off the pitch to ensure they can progress on it. The former Burnley chief executive took it upon himself to rebuild relationships.
“When I met Sharon and came to this club, I just thought: ‘Wow, what an opportunity to be part of putting something back together,’” Hart says. “The club is on a stable footing financially with a good investor and ownership group behind it. I have found them [Football Ventures] a joy to work with, really straight and transparent. We are really clear on how we are operating financially.
“My job has been to make sure the club is as strong as it can be commercially. We have tried to do that by re-engaging with the local business community through sponsorship deals with the big ticket items such as stadium naming rights. We have just done a record five-year deal with a local company, Toughsheet, that is more than Reebok were paying in the Premier League days.”
The foundations are in place that Bolton hope will help take them into the Championship sooner rather than later. As proved by their ticket sales for Wembley, there is a strong fanbase to build on. The club have 14,000 season-ticket holders and attracted a crowd of more than 25,000 at home to Derby.
The supporters’ trust, set up in 2016, had a frosty relationship with Anderson but things have improved since Hart’s arrival. A memorandum of understanding was agreed between the trust and club, who also had no objection to renewing the asset of community value order on the stadium, to protect it from being sold, the initial order coming in 2017 after it had been opposed by Anderson. They have official meetings every quarter and more informal conversations monthly, allowing fans to make proposals on everything from kit design to food and beverage at the stadium. “The dialogue is very good,” says Bridge, who is set to make his sixth visit to Wembley to see Bolton on Sunday. “We don’t always agree with everything but the club do listen.”
The club and community are again linked, making the bond at Wembley even stronger. If Bolton had gone to the wall, it would have been catastrophic for the town. Bolton can host major events that would not have been possible if Wanderers had folded. The council was considering turning the ground into a lorry park had the unthinkable happened.
“Football clubs can have huge impacts on the town,” says Hart. “We are seeing it now where we can help develop business and the economic position in the town, we can work closely with the council. We had the England v France fixture in the Rugby League World Cup; that was huge for the town in terms of place and the benefits it brings in terms of shops, hotels and restaurants. We have Pink here for two nights in June to open her world tour. It is significant that the club plays its part in the town like that.”
Bolton show there is a way back from the brink. Win or lose at Wembley, the fact the Trotters are there is worth celebrating and they will be hoping to be back in May for a playoff. “Everyone wants instant success,” Bridge says. “I am just happy knowing we will definitely have a club next season and not every fan can say that.”