“An Hour Ago, You Were The Man of Mystery…”

“They seek him here, they seek him there, those policeman they seek him everwhere. Is he in Heaven? Or is he in Hell? That damned, elusive… sha-a-a-a-dow.”

The mystery and lack of media publicity that surrounds Tobias Phoenix is intentional. His one interview since his appointment, with Marc Iles in The Bolton News, explicitly states “if I can avoid it. I definitely will – politely.” 

As he says himself, his job title is “absolutely irrelevant”. His answer to Peter Kenyon asking what job title he wanted apparently “isn’t suitable for air”. He sounds a right maverick. Well, it ends in ‘ick’ anyway. 

You wouldn’t understand Tobias. You wouldn’t get Tobias. We aren’t supposed to know him and we aren’t supposed to acknowledge him because “it’s really important people get away from this being the Tobias Phoenix show, it really, really isn’t.” 

So – is Mr Phoenix a bit of Sir Percy Blakeney or more Lennox Gilbey? 

The summer started so well. 

Overwhelming optimism and confidence in the fan base that was matched by a straight talking yet forward thinking managerial appointment. The first two through the door were League Two’s marquee signings in Doyle and Sarcevic; spirits were high and expectations were higher. 

Unremarkable transfers began to follow. Nothing to worry about. If anything, this showed organisation and a speed of business that highlighted an impressive efficiency and planning. It increased expectation. 

August came and, nine signings later, it went. A mix of squad-fillers, useful players, creative data-driven signings and the occasional standout in Delfouneso and Santos. This was good. This was the next stage of the process. 

And then… 

The heavily used line of position specific recruitment went out of the window in just 75 minutes of the new season. 1-0 down at home to Forest Green and Evatt switched from the system they’ve spent 8 weeks signing players for, 8 weeks using in pre-season matches as well as 8 weeks training and adapting to. 

It isn’t just a basic switch of system, either. To go from 5-2-1-2 to a 4-3-3 completely out of the blue just seems odd on the face of it. It looks even more odd when you factor in that Bolton signed 4 centre-backs to go with the 4 they already had at the club – but they hadn’t signed a single winger before this game. 

Baffling touchline decisions are difficult to pin down on Phoenix. However, basic communication and knowledge of Evatt’s tactical flexibility would have allowed the club to have focused on filling gaps in key positions.

The structure of the squad is disjointed and, somehow, already bloated. In a season where an embargo means the size of the squad is limited – we have seemingly managed to collect deadwood. Greenidge, Taft and Amoateng have 3 league appearances between them. Mascoll, Gordon and Hickman have been dropped once or twice already. We signed four wing-backs over the summer and none of them are in the current starting eleven. The goalkeeper is suffering from over-exposure, both on and off the field. He has no cover because the cover who was signed is a coach that apparently doesn’t fancy it and a third-choice that continues to be excluded from a goalkeeper-less substitutes’ bench. It is messy.

“It’s about getting the right people into the club, giving them the right resources, and if we all stay in our lanes and do what we were brought in to do, we’ll be going places.”

Phoenix’s own remit for his own job is apparently down to two things. He’s failing (or failed, already) at both. 

The well organised plan and structure of pre-season recruitment stopped as soon as Bolton lost 5-1 to Wigan in a friendly. Since then, there appears to have been sheer panic and regret. It has been so naive.

There is some mitigation, though. Injuries, ‘time to gel’ as well as the odd in-game anomaly or flukes has cost Bolton. Of those reasons that could be used to defend Evatt and Phoenix, I think that the amount of injuries would be the fairest and most reasonable one. 

Short-term disruptions and long-term absences have been aplenty. Gethin Jones, Eoin Doyle, Antoni Sarcevic, Tom White, Shaun Miller, Dennis Politic, Lloyd Isgrove and Alex Baptiste have all, at some point, been unavailable due to injury. We’ve only played 10 league games and the length of that list is remarkable.

The ‘Head of Football Operations’ has serious pressure on him and serious work to do. There has either been a communication breakdown or misunderstanding between him and the manager about the structure of the squad. 

Well, hopefully there has. The alternative is that neither of them considered or noticed the massive imbalances and gaps in the squad. The lack of wingers should’ve been spotted and addressed before the manager decided he’d like to use wingers for a game and a half at the start of the season.

Phoenix’s role at the club is vital. He is right when he says that “football has changed”. The long-term philosophy and strategy must override the short-term. Players must be brought in to the club with a view to them remaining at the club for the next manager and the manager after that. The type of person and player is important. 

It isn’t financially viable to operate on “getting the new manager what he needs” and giving him “two or three transfer windows to get it right”. It never had been viable and thankfully, a lot of English clubs are catching up. You must approach and appoint the manager you know will adapt to the players you have. Trust your own processes. 

It is, of course, way too early to suggest this season is a failure. It isn’t way too early to predict it could be a failure. The season could legitimately end in relegation to the non-league. The fact that sentence isn’t completely dismissed as utterly preposterous emphasises the inconsistent, unorganised and frankly poor job that has been done this summer. It started so well and then went quickly downhill.

If you appoint the manager and sign the players that are failing then you have also failed. The brunt of the criticism has been taken by the manager and the players. The aforementioned intentional mystery coveted by Tobias Phoenix has allowed him to escape so far. 

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