At the end of an inconclusive Lancashire derby on Monday night, the south stand of the University of Bolton Stadium that was rammed with Blackpool fans erupted in sustained booing. The tangerine-clad supporters who had made the 40-mile trip south were unhappy with what they had just seen. A disjointed, scrappy, uninventive match, slowed by an officious referee and bereft of anything approaching a plausible attempt on goal, it was not hard to understand the collective disappointment. But for Tim Fielding, far from dispiriting, this was a sound to make him smile.
“I find it genuinely refreshing we’re moaning about the football again,” said Fielding, a former chairman of the Blackpool Supporters’ Trust. “Whingeing about the lack of goals is what we should be doing as football supporters, not worrying about lack of governance. It shows we’re back to being a normal club.”
He has a point. Sure, there may have been a lack of quality on the Bolton pitch, but in many ways there was something to celebrate in the fact this fixture could go ahead finally unencumbered by the serial incompetents who had brought both clubs to the very lip of disaster. This was the match over which the clouds had now lifted at last.
“It feels like a new start,” said Alan Jervis, a Bolton fan who recalls, as a five-year-old, watching his local side win the 1958 FA Cup final on the television his father bought specially. “There’s been a lot of irresponsible people spending money they didn’t have at this club, buying players they couldn’t afford and watching them not being bothered to run after the ball. Now reality has hit I think we can properly begin again. At least we’ve got football to watch. Unlike them poor lot at Bury.”
For too much of their recent history these two grand old clubs have been mired in muddle, misery and dispute. At Blackpool, a four-year fan boycott only ended in March when the poisonous ownership of the Oyston family came to an abrupt, high court-directed end.
At Bolton, the prospect of obliteration was averted at the very last in August when new owners stepped in to take over from the administration caused by the mismanagement of the Ken Anderson regime. It meant that under the autumnal Lancastrian sky, the 14,000 who had gathered to witness this game could all do something that lies at the heart of being a fan: moan about the football. Though not all of them were complaining.
“Actually, I’m enjoying what I’m seeing,” said Ian Bridge, the founding chairman of the Bolton Supporters’ Trust. “I think a lot of people have fallen back in love with Bolton now that they can see everyone is pulling in the same direction.” Not that the love comes easy. Docked 12 points for falling into administration, with only four players on the books when the season started, the hastily assembled Bolton squad have yet to win a league game this season. Now 18 points adrift of safety at the bottom of League One, and with further penalties likely for missing fixtures when the Anderson-inflicted crisis came to a head, relegation appears inevitable. Though do not tell Keith Hill, the manager, that.
“There’s still 102 points available. I’m confident we can pick up enough from that total,” Hill said. “I don’t see any pressure results-wise in this job.”
Hill was brought in by Football Ventures Ltd – Bolton’s new owners, backed financially by Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason – to organise a side constructed from whoever was available for free. In two days ahead of the end of the transfer window, he signed nine players. The team suffered four defeats by five goals before September was out. But latterly draws with fancied teams such as Oxford, Sunderland and now Blackpool have brought hint of regeneration.
“We may be a million miles away from where we need to be,” Hill said. “But we will work tirelessly to make this club great again.”
All around the Bolton stadium are indications of how far they have slipped from previous greatness. In the club shop are pictures of former heroes such as Jay-Jay Okocha and Nat Lofthouse, and one of the empty boxes is fondly named “The Premier Suite”.
But Hill believes the imposed injection of realism can only be of benefit. “There’s necessary change at this football club in order for us to survive,” he said. “We can’t go back to frivolous spending. What we mustn’t do is fear change. We went into administration because people refused to change.”
At Blackpool, the club are further down the path to recovery. Now owned by Hong Kong-based Simon Sadler, a lifelong fan, the club’s followers have been encouraged to become involved in charting their new direction; coaches have been laid on for away matches; a new supporter liaison officer has been appointed. Under manager Simon Grayson, the team sit in the play-off positions. Expectations are rising. At Bolton, too, while the league table might suggest otherwise, the supporters’ trust has been encouraged by the positivity generated by the new owners. These are two clubs with much in common.
Yet solidarity was not much in evidence inside the stadium. As the game sank into stalemate, the Blackpool fans cheered themselves up with a chant directed at their opponents. “Going down, going down, going down,” they sang, with a verve approaching glee.
Not that the Bolton fans seemed overly perturbed by the idea. Frankly, after what they have been through, relegation would represent a minor blip.