It has become something of a cliché in recent years to suggest that the Football League Championship is rather more difficult to fall into than it is to get out of in an upwardly direction. There is a swathe of clubs in this division who have found this out to their cost, and amongst those currently experiencing this is a club that spent thirteen of its previous seasons living the high life in the Premier League: Bolton Wanderers. It seems reasonable to say that Boltons relegation at the end of last season was something of a surprise. Bolton had stabilised in the top division, with only occasional flirtations with the Premier League trapdoor and four consecutive top ten finishes between 2004 and 2007.
Last season, however, the wheels fell unexpectedly off the wagon and Bolton dropped back into the often unexpectedly tricky world of the Football League Championship. Whenever this happens, it is widely anticipated that the manager behind this drop will find himself without a job, but Owen Coyle found himself clinging on at The Reebok Stadium. Such faith, however, comes at a price, and the price for Coyle was the implicit understanding that the club would be required to have a strong start to life in back in the Football League. It is fair to say that this didn’t happen. That his team dropped out of the League Cup in the Second Round after a defeat at the hands of Crawley Town could probably be considered an irrelevance – few clubs seem to take that competition very seriously these days – but Boltons league form couldn’t. Wins against Derby County, Sheffield Wednesday and Watford seemed to indicate that Coyle was only capable of digging out results against the divisions more moderate opponents, and in the second week of October he was relieved of his duties.
The clubs choice of replacement, the former Crystal Palace manager Dougie Freedman, raised an eyebrow or two, though. Freedman had taken his team to near the top of the Championship table this season and last season he took them to the semi-finals of the League Cup (beating Manchester United in the process), but Palace only finished last season in seventeenth place in the league and starting this season very slowly, losing each of their first four competitive matches of the season before finally kicking into gear at the start of September with a run of results that has culminated with the club now sitting atop the Championship table. There is an element of gamble to the appointment of Freedman to the managers position at the club. From the managers point of view it is understood that the contract that he had at Selhurst Park was a relatively modest one, whilst Premier League parachute payments may make the job of impressing his own will upon the club somewhat easier than it might have been at Crystal Palace.
On the other hand, though, many have tried and failed to take the step up in terms of managing the expectations of a restless support-base, and at a time when many Bolton supporters may feel that the clock is ticking with regard to the need to get back into the Premier League it remains to be seen how much patience will be afforded to Freedman should positive results not begin to flow relatively quickly. There was, apparently, automatic vindication for the clubs decision when he won his first match in charge at The Reebok Stadium against then-league leaders Cardiff City at the end of October, but the three matches since then have only seen three draws, and whilst two of those – against Leicester City and Blackpool – were reasonably creditable results, last Saturdays, at home against Barnsley, was a less satisfactory result. Crystal Palace, meanwhile, drafted Ian Holloway in from Blackpool as Freedmans replacement and their result last weekend – a three-nil win against Derby County – left them two points clear of Cardiff City at the top of the table. The Championships surprise package of the season continues to deliver.
It is conventional, when considering Bolton Wanderers, to make some reference to the size of the clubs debt. It is, after all, a headline-grabbing figure at £136m and debts of that size have been enough to sink the likes of Portsmouth and Rangers in the not too distant past. In the case of Bolton, however, the clubs situation is somewhat different and it is these differences that afford the club a little more room for manoeuvre than others with similar debt levels. Firstly, it is understood that the most voracious of creditors when it comes to football clubs, HMRC, remains paid up to date, and importance of this cannot be understated. Secondly, the overwhelming majority of the clubs debt is owed to one benefactor, Eddie Davies, who has never given any indication of demanding repayment of the debts racked up in his name. Now, there is a moral argument to be made over whether any football club should be allowed to accumulate this level of indebtedness which has been addressed by UEFAs Financial Fair Play regulations, but from the perspective of the Bolton Wanderers supporter, the risk of complete financial collapse remains lower than it surely would have been had the previous two clauses been in effect.
Regulation, however, is coming to the Football League whether clubs like it or not and Bolton Wanderers will have to cut their cloth accordingly in order to avoid sanctions from the authorities. The League is adopting Financial Fair Play regulations and, whilst historical debt will not be affected by this the days of clubs spending significantly more than they earn may be coming to an end. Premier League parachute payments will feather Boltons nest for the time being, but the club does seem to have been shifting in emphasis towards compliance with FFP and, as has perhaps already been seen this season, expectations may have to be tempered during the transitional period. Indeed, we might even argue that the arrival of Dougie Freedman – who had worked under tight financial restraints and in tandem with an excellent youth academy at Crystal Palace – is a likely portent of the direction that Bolton Wanderers intend to take in the immediate future. There seems to be a degree of calculated gamble about much at the club – the relatively inexperienced manager, the debt to one man – but in terms of financial liquidity the Premier Leagues parachute payments offer a degree of security to Bolton Wanderers which allows supporters to continue to be relatively sanguine about its future.
Moreover, league positions at this stage of the season can continue to be deceptive, and this is no more true than in the Football League Championship, where even the most ambitious of clubs can find that this division can be so fiendishly difficult to get out of in an upwardly direction. A cursory glance at the league table shows Bolton in seventeenth place, but they are still just seven points from the play-off places and this means that to describe this season as one of transition for the club. Recent results may have been patchy, but there remains all to play for this season for Bolton Wanderers. Such is the nature of the Football League Championship that one third of the way through the season is no time to be calling time on their season just yet.
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