It’s a gloomy Autumn afternoon. The smell and sound of on-pitch fireworks overwhelm the young, excite the bulk and irritate the old. 633 Squadron cuts through the mist as the cult-hero boy-to-man leader thumps a mascot’s ball to the corner where North meets East. This is it: the glory days.
Scratch that – that WAS it. It is now time to move on; a new era has begun.
Ian Evatt’s rallying cry to get young people in the town wearing the shirts of Bolton Wanderers rather than our nearby Mancunian giants is something that should be (and is) a priority. However, it is only a goal that can be achieved by connecting people with the club; appealing to families and giving children a reason to ask their parents to “go the game” or “get a shirt”.
We haven’t had it for a long, long time – remarkably, we haven’t been allowed to have that this year – and yet, we have fallen in love; or at least rekindled a fading romance.
It began with excitement. A process of identifying and then appointing a supposedly bright young prospect of the management world was backed up by marquee signings and the apparently methodical and data-driven process of recruiting a whole new squad. The fanbase buzzed in anticipation of a stroll to the title.
That expectation was misguided and impatient, as well as arrogant in many ways. As Wanderers went on, the manager seemed easily combustible and handled the pressures of a failing giant in an erratic and unhelpful manner – overly critical of individual players, loose with words and willing to blame almost anything and anyone bar himself. Alongside that, the man in charge of the aforementioned methodical and data-driven recruitment process was shown the door before the mid-way point of the season and the new era was flatlining.
January arrived and then came the crucial acquisitions of a new midfield and a sprinkling of extra quality across the side. That flatlining new era was given a lifeline and Wanderers were relentless throughout the second-half of the campaign.
From the lowest point in our history to a 22-game run that will surely go down as one of the greatest the club has ever been on. This was a machine-like side that had created a genuine sense of unity and desire to complement an evolving and improving style of play that would see Bolton regularly wipe the floor with their opposition – but… they wasted chance after chance until it came down to the final day.
There would be no mistake. The manager, having evolved and learned himself throughout the campaign led us into a thumping victory as we finally did stroll (as had been the pre-season expectations) to promotion. Evatt made some errors in the first half of the season and frustrated many supporters with his rhetoric. However, he showed serious managerial quality to not just build a cohesive and dominant team but do that in the middle of a pandemic and in his first season as an EFL manager. His style of play and adaptability to switch between systems has helped this wonderful football club rise from worrying depths. There is an understandable and justifiable feeling that Wanderers have a special person in charge.
The reason behind the growing sense of love and affection for a group of players yet to actually play in front of their supporters will be varied and specific for many people. A key reason will be the journey; a journey cultivated by the impressive Ian Evatt. A journey whereby a club beginning the campaign at their lowest point looking to create something special but categorically failing and even worsening the situation within four months – before becoming a unique and constant force that makes good, if not goes beyond, the pre-season promise.
Saturday felt like the end of that journey. That victory against Crawley Town prompted a release of varied emotions; whether that be tears, elated cheers, relief or a moment of brief introspection – an acknowledgement that this is extremely important and poignant.
I’ve said it a couple of times in this tumultuous season for the whole sport but football is the playground of the dreamer and the escape of the worker. It is the refuge of the troubled and the company of the lonely. It belongs to me, him, her, you and us; not them.
We nearly had OUR football taken from us; that old fading romantic flame was on the verge of being extinguished. That is why this feels so special.
Saturday wasn’t the end of a journey – because THIS is only the beginning: Bolton Wanderers are on their way back.