This season, it can be said without too much fear of contradiction, has been a disastrous one for Bolton Wanderers. On the pitch, the team has managed just one win in all competitions – against Wolverhampton Wanderers, a little over two months ago – and sits one place off the bottom of the Football League Championship, having also been knocked out of the League Cup at the first hurdle, at home by League One Burton Albion. Manager Neil Lennon has been unable to arrest the team’s torpor, and the team returns from this international break with only the dismal Rotherham United keeping them from descending to the foot of the table.
If things have been going badly for the club on the pitch so far this season, its position off the pitch could hardly be described as healthy either. Although only relegated from the Premier League in 2012 and therefore still in receipt of that division’s plump parachute payments, the club is currently in debt to the tune of a jaw-dropping £172m and it was reported in the Daily Mail a couple of weeks ago that non-playing staff were actively seeking new employment amid concerns that it was only a matter of time before the club was nudged into administration, whilst a number of transfers which Neil Lennon might have hoped would inject a little life into an apparently moribund first team squad have stalled.
It was, therefore, hardly surprising to hear that chairman Phil Gartside stepped aside from his duties earlier this week, and there is concern over his well-being following confirmation that he is “seriously ill.” Exact details of his health issues have not been made public, but it would be unsurprising if they were in some way stress related. Earlier this year, Gartside was in court as a result of a private prosecution brought against him, former manager Sammy Lee, director of football Frank McParland, former player Gavin McCann, the agent Jerome Anderson and several of Anderson’s staff by another agent, Tony McGill, over McCann’s transfer from Aston Villa in 2007. Gartside was eventually acquitted of the charges, but the case – which, although taken out privately, was taken over by the Crown Prosecution Service as it progressed – lasted for seven months, and the toll that this might take on one’s health should be clear, especially when combined with the pressures of the deteriorating performances of the team on the pitch.
Although Gartside might have been the chairman of Bolton Wanderers for more than sixteen years, he was never the true holder of power at the club. That has long rested with Eddie Davies, the businessman who owns the club and has been underwriting its debts for longer than has been healthy for it. Davies joined the club’s board of directors in 1999, became the majority shareholder in Burnden Leisure, the holding company that owns the club, four years later. The majority of the club’s debt is owed to Davies, but this carries with it as many costs as it does benefits. On the one hand, Davies is a fan and is unlikely to act out of cold-hearted vituperation towards the club that he supports. On the other, however, the club is inextricably tied to him, and his announcement that he is unable to provide further funding for the club puts it in a difficult position, if his funding has been underwriting the day to day running of the club.
Davies has been looking to sell the cub since October of last year, but with debts of this size, finding a buyer has not been an easy task. Would a buyer assume such a large debt, and would the club ever be able to repay what it owes to Davies? The size of it is such that even a couple of years in the Premier League, even with its newly inflated television revenues, would be unable to cover it in full, Persistent rumours of the club entering into administration, however, always seemed somewhat wide of the mark, precisely because of the nature of the club’s debt. Any entry into administration would see Davies as by far the club’s biggest creditor, and any plan to take the club out of administration would end in him having the final say over whether a deal could be agreed. In this extremely unlikely event, any offer put on the table would most likely be for pennies in the pound, and why would Davies go that far only to sign away tens of million pounds owed? It would almost make more sense for him to write off the club’s debts to him altogether.
None of this is to say that the club would be completely out of the water with regard to this. With it having been confirmed that Davies cannot put any more funding into the club, the harsh truth of the matter is that Bolton Wanderers will have to stand on its own two feet from now on. Previous experience from other clubs tells us that tax is one of the first bills to fall by the wayside when a club is struggling to remain solvent, and it is long-established that HMRC is just about the most aggressive creditor that any football club can have. To give one very recent example, Northampton Town is in a deep financial hole to the tune of over £10m, but the winding up order currently hanging over the club relates to a matter of just £166,000 owed to HMRC. If Bolton Wanderers is to ensure that it steers clear of the High Court, it needs to steer clear of an organisation that will no doubt be watching how it deals with its tax affairs very closely indeed.
If there is a ray of light at the end of the tunnel for Bolton supporters, it rests in the appointment of Trevor Birch as an advisor to the club on financial matters. As the administrator at Portsmouth, it was Birch who made the Portsmouth Supporters Trust the preferred bidder for that club and finally dug it out of a hole that had seemed inescapable as a parade of individuals who only seemed interested in their own enrichment paraded through Fratton Park. He was also involved at Leeds United in 2004 and has given advice to other clubs as well. With Eddie Davies fully on board, such experience might just be enough to dig the club out of its current hole and find it the investment that it so badly needs.
The truth of the matter is that Eddie Davies almost certainly won’t be getting anything like the money that he is owed back from Bolton Wanderers. If the club was to somehow rise up the Football League Championship table and propel itself into the Premier League, there is a chance that a sizable proportion of it could be recovered, but a debt of almost £173m, losses posted for the year to 2014 of a shade over £9m, a mis-firing first team squad, bills to pay and, if anything, a need to cut costs still further means that the club’s predicament will require the very best that Neil Lennon can manage if it is to avoid a second relegation in four seasons, next spring. Will new investment breathe new life into the club? We shall see, if it can be found in the first place.
While Phil Gartside is not a name that will inspire a great deal of sympathy outside of the Macron Stadium – the cynics amongst us may well be forgiven wondering aloud whether he would still be as enthusiastic now as he was in 2010 for his nakedly self-serving calls for a two division Premier League including Celtic and Rangers with no promotion or relegation below it – it would be somewhat churlish not to wish him well in his battle against ill health. The health of Bolton Wanderers, meanwhile, hangs in the balance. The club’s financial position almost feels like a throwback to an era of Premier League excess, when clubs gambled in the pursuit of perpetual top division status, with those that failed later enduring their hangovers out of sight and out of mind, in the lower regions of the Football League Championship. At least, supporters may console themselves as they survey what has been a train wreck of a season so far, Eddie Davies, the man upon whom the club’s future rests, is a fan. As such, the complete implosion of Bolton Wanderers remains extremely unlikely indeed. Restoring this club to rude health, however, looks like continuing to be a most daunting challenge.
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