Football League Review: Two Forms of Footballing Purgatory

by | Aug 25, 2019

There are two ways of looking at it, really. On the one hand, the attendance of 5,454 who turned out at The University of Bolton Stadium for Bolton Wanderers match against Ipswich Town yesterday afternoon was a record low league crowd throughout the twenty-two years since it opened. Bolton Wanderers remain at death’s door, with no takeover of the club still having been agreed and the club having cancelled last week’s game against Doncaster Rovers with just days to spare out of apparent concern for the well-being the youngsters currently making up the youngest team in the history of the club. Bury may have made most of the headlines in this particular race to the pits of hell over the last few days, but Bolton’s condition doesn’t seem to have improved at all.

There is, however, another way of looking at it. Bolton went into this game on minus eleven points, and having conceded five goals in each of their last three matches and without a single goal to show for their four league matches, so far. The manager finally quit last week, a final admission that this is a situation well beyond his control. The likelihood of them winning this match was listed by some bookmakers as being in excess of 35/1, so remote was it considered. In a two horse race. With the match against Doncaster Rovers having been called off, there weren’t even any guarantees that the match would be taking place until pretty late in the week. In the overall scheme of enticing ways to spend a summer’s Saturday, and with the greatest will in the world, Bolton Wanderers vs Ipswich Town hardly ranked particularly highly unless you come from Suffolk or particularly enjoy rubber-necking at the footballing equivalent to a seventy-five car pile-up.

And the experience of all of this must be extraordinary, for those who are still turning out for these matches. When a team is losing 5-0 almost every week, we might expect the atmosphere to be febrile, furious, and toxic. At Bolton, though, there really isn’t anybody there to be furious at. The manager has gone, and no-one really blames him. The players aren’t responsible for this mess. They’re a bunch of youngsters doing their best under near-impossible circumstances because the club literally cannot afford anyone else. Sure enough, one can get angry at the EFL, at the administrator, at the owners who aren’t, at the tyre-kickers who are, and at the cast of hundreds who played a role in facilitating this slow inexorable creep towards the end, but it’s all abstract, isn’t it? The best that can be said for Saturday afternoons spent shouting and swearing at players, coaching staff and referees is that it’s cathartic for those doing the shouting. Getting angry at the youth team trying to fend off one of the pre-season promotion favourites in a four-fifths empty stadium during a match that might even be wiped from the record in a few weeks feels like a very particular type of purgatory, really, though. And still more than five and a half thousand people turned out. Football really does have a remarkable pull.

Saturday evening brought news that felt inevitable, considering the (lack of) events of the last couple of of weeks. With the takeover that the EFL had been persuaded would rescue the club seemingly no closer to having been completed, the league confirmed on Saturday evening that unless they have received further solid proof that the Football Ventures takeover has got the substance to it that has previously been claimed. The only answer to the question of whether any resolution to the now both protracted and alleged takeover Bolton Wanderers can be found is to shrug one’s shoulders. In the absence of anything beyond increasingly optimistic-looking social media rumour, it looks increasingly likely that Bolton are now entering terminal velocity in their race towards liquidation.

Bury, meanwhile, survived the hangman’s noose by the skin of their teeth. Late on Friday night disgraced owner Steve Dale confirmed that he had reached agreement with a sports analytics company called C&N Sporting Risk, a company that features Rory Campbell, son of the former politician Alistair Campbell, amongst its number. This news, however, is far from unqualified good news for the club’s supporters, though. C&N have been reported to have been in discussion with Dale for ten weeks, but few reporting this seem to be questioning how this corresponds with, well, absolutely everything else that has happened at the club over the last ten weeks. It is absolutely fair enough that the decision to invest in a club with the recent history of Bury would be complex, that (according to the statement released on Friday night), “it is a very complicated scenario and there remain a number of outstanding legal and other issues that have to be addressed.”

But why wasn’t this mentioned anywhere before? C&N’s financial returns of Companies House give little indication of this being a company with the financial wherewithal to be involved in something like this, so who is funding it? Are they paying for it themselves, is the board going to be wiped clean and a fresh round of debt layered upon the club? What is the plan to make Bolton Wanderers financially self-sustainable for the first time in decades? Such questioning might sound almost invasive, but professional football is not a business like any other and it should be entirely normal that these are the very first questions asked of the owners of any club when first taking it over. After all, it’s hardly as though there aren’t grounds to be a little jumpy about the prospective new owners of this particular football club, considering what happened last December and what’s happened since then.

It doesn’t just end here either, of course. Coventry City are playing their home matches in Birmingham. Macclesfield Town may or may not be paying their players at the moment. There are others, too, just as there always are. And all of this has been going on while the economy has been reasonably stable. What happens to these clubs should a financial shock hit the economy in the coming months is just about anybody’s guess. Time is running out to save both Bolton Wanderers and Bury, and 5pm is now a deadline which at the very least will tell us exactly where we are with regard to the life or death of these two football clubs. Perhaps more likely, it may well inform us as to they’ll even survive the changing of the seasons. The current position is neither good nor bad. The current position is just that shrug of the shoulders.