Going to the Match — L.S. Lowry

BWFC — Sending Out an SOS

A message to a future owner (assuming there is one)

My dad took me to see Bolton Wanderers when I was seven. He used to go every week. I remember asking him if I could go with him and he couldn’t have been happier. It was as if I transitioned from being a little to a big lad — this was something we could finally do together, both of us. He worked a late shift at a paper mill back then and wouldn’t get home until after 10 o’clock. I remember the night he came home with my season ticket. It was a Friday and he woke me up to show it to me — he couldn’t wait. “Tomorrow,” he said, “we’ll watch the reserves.” I had no idea what that meant. But almost every Saturday after that, we went to Burnden Park to watch the first team or reserves play.

He used to stand in the Paddock with the lads but all that had to change when he took me. Our season ticket seats were on that very last row of the Great Lever Stand, right at the top. We sat with the old men that, whenever Taddy Nowak got the ball, wrung their hands together in fervent anticipation and mumbled “nah then!”

I remember the half-times more than anything else. It’s not like I didn’t enjoy the football, of course I did. Have you ever seen that goal by Frank Worthington? I was there — thousands were, but I was too. But what I remember most was that every week, my dad would pull out a thermos flask full of piping hot coffee and pour it into two cups while our hands shook from the cold. Then, just before I’d drink any, he’d pull out a little hip flask from his pocket and drop in a bit of whiskey. “This’ll warm yer’up,” he said, with a smile, “…and don’t tell yer mam! Christ!” He had a special way of saying Christ. And I never did tell my mum. Anyway, every week he did that. Every week we did the same thing.

He passed away a year ago next Saturday. I miss him terribly, we all do, but I’m glad he’s not here to see this.

For those that don’t know, for those that don’t follow Bolton Wanderers Football Club — I’m here to tell you that this historic club, a founder member of the Football League, THE Football League, is in dire straits.

I don’t even know how you get here from there. To make a long story a bit shorter, we had a great spell in the Premier League — the pinnacle of English football. It was truly wonderful. We were playing in Europe, we had a new stadium, we had Jay Jay, it was all good. But we swept our finances under the rug and buried our heads in the sand — can’t think of more cliches. Debt would go up every year and our Chairman kept telling us not to worry because the creditor was a Bolton man — more importantly a Bolton fan, and it would only ever be a problem if he called his debt in. And this, we were told, wasn’t going to happen. After all, he was the owner.

And of course, he called his debt in.

I can’t remember the amount. It was astronomically large, more than £150 million. But, generously, he forgave it — almost all of it.

On the face of it, this sounds good, right? Well, yes, I suppose. The reason he forgave it was because he wanted to put the club up for sale — and who in their right mind would want to buy a club that couldn’t turn a profit and owed £150 million? Now, if we’re frank, Eddie, Bolton’s most generous benefactor, may have been owed £150 million, but it wasn’t exactly £150 million out of pocket. You see, Eddie lent the club money and charged interest on it. And then, the next financial year, when the club couldn’t pay back that loan and interest, he lent more money to cover that loan and interest. And this went on for about 10 years. Eddie knew that eventually the club would bleed him dry and needed an exit. So, he forgave the loan and put the club up for sale. I’m not saying Eddie wasn’t generous, he was — he was amazingly generous. He just wasn’t that generous. Let’s say he was £70 million generous, not £150 million generous. Subtle, I know.

But then along came Dean Holdsworth and Ken Anderson to buy the club. Dean, bless him, used to play for Bolton. He did okay but will always be remembered for missing a sitter of a goal opportunity in an FA Cup Semi Final game against Aston Villa. But either way, he and his friend Ken offered to buy the club from Eddie and move things forward. Ken and Dean aren’t the ideal pair for football management — I’m not sure they really liked each other. They should be opening Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises, that kind of thing. But the problem that Bolton had was its debt, real or otherwise. Yes, the debt was effectively gone but it didn’t advertise the club particularly well as a commercially viable product. It would be like buying a house when you knew the previous owners were continually replacing the walls. The walls might be new when you buy the house, but you know something isn’t right. It didn’t attract the kind of owners we’d like but beggars can’t be choosers. And so Ken and Dean arrived at the club thinking they could fix whatever problems we had.

They said the right things in the beginning, but the money they promised to take the club forward didn’t materialize. Somehow, somewhere, Dean was excluded from the partnership, and Ken Anderson became the sole owner.

Me, reading “Notes from the Chairman”, about the spat with Dean Holdsworth

From Eddie forgiving his loan and for a year after Anderson took over we stumbled from month to month just covering the bills. But then things got worse. Over the last year BWFC has been taken to court a handful of times for unpaid debts. Chairman Anderson has made no secret of the fact that he wants to the sell the club, but whenever a potential buyer comes and looks at the books, they’re scared off. There is obviously a lot more debt than we know about.

Then, about two weeks ago, it sounds like we’d snagged ourselves a buyer — Lawrence Bassini. Bassini had a stint owning Watford. And that didn’t go well. It didn’t go well at all. It sounded like more of the same, or even possibly worse. But he promised us money and even though it made me puke a little in my mouth, I was willing to give Bassini a chance.

That was until he lost the money — like you lose your homework. In football, it’s not enough to buy the club outright, you have to prove to the league that you can invest for a few years — and according to the League, and to Chairman Anderson, he couldn’t. So, Bolton Wanderers Football Club released a statement that the deal was off because Bassini hadn’t come up with proof of funds.

The following day, and counter to the current understanding from everyone else on this green earth, Bassini appeared on Sky Sports News and declared that he did, in fact, control the club and had the paperwork to prove it — but doesn’t show it. It was confusing for two reasons. One — what now? You control the club? Two — why was the media continuing to give this guy a microphone?

Actual image from Bolton vs. Brentford. Brentford won 1–0

In the meantime, the players mounted a strike because they hadn’t been paid for months, the hotel and the basic infrastructure at the stadium closed because the club, quite literally, couldn’t afford to keep the lights on. And then we found out that the team scout hadn’t been scouting for any players for God knows how long because he didn’t have enough money to put petrol in his car.

Somehow, the club now owes somewhere between £20 million and £42 million — and no one is sure how, why, or what. Anderson is cagey about what money is where. All we know is that when serious buyers look at the books, they run a mile.

So, what’s next? It’s hard to say. The club is due in court this week to resolve a tax debt. There isn’t money to pay it. It is possible that if the club doesn’t have a plan, the court could wind down the club. That is, the club will cease to exist, and I’ll be looking for another club to follow.

I spoke with my cousin about this the other day. What if the club goes away? Would you follow another team? He said no. I liken it to knowing that your spouse is dying and thinking — will I ever marry again? Maybe I will, it’s just that right now is not the time to be thinking about it.

And Bolton may not die. The best possible outcome here is that we go into administration on Tuesday, have the debts more or less cleared, and start next season, in League 1 (level 3 of the pyramid) already docked 24 points. 12 for missing a fixture and 12 for going into administration. So yes, that’s the best possible outcome — we start the season, a league below on -24 points. That’s a really low frigging bar of best outcome, isn’t it?

We can survive that. It will take time and new ideas to get us back but we can do it. But we have to go about it differently than in the past. During our last stint in the Premier League, it wasn’t difficult to see the writing on the wall that led to our financial downfall. Premiership profits for a club the size of Bolton don’t offset the costs. Even though the income from TV and the other Premiership money triples, costs, in the form of player contracts, are even greater. Our current business model will not allow us to be in the Premier League and turn a profit — no matter what anyone says. Remember former chairman Phil Gartside telling former manager Sam Allardyce “We can’t be in the Champions League”. This wasn’t because the then chairman was a dick, it was because he didn’t know of a plan where we could make a European expedition financially work. We can do it though, we just have to have the right brains, the right people in the room. Anyway, forgive me. I’m looking way ahead, dreaming, when in reality, we’ve just got to get through the rest of this week.

And so this is my message to you — The future owner of Bolton Wanderers Football Club (if there ever is one)

If you think you can come to Bolton with old ideas about how to make a profit, you are going to fail. If you think by putting better beer on tap, and tastier pies in the shops, that that’ll somehow get the business to break even, you are going to fail (but yes, still do this, it doesn’t harm — we love pies). If you are looking to come to BWFC to find inefficiencies and cut a quid here and there, you are going to fail. And we, the town, are going to fail with you.

If you have a new business model, bold ideas, new tactics, if you are looking to spend a quid to make two, if you are looking to genuinely invest in our youth and outreach, then, you could succeed. And if you sincerely want to act as a guardian to the club and not just an owner, you’ll do even better. No promises, but you’ll have a fighting chance — the best we’ve had.

And if you do succeed, we’ll give you the keys to the town and a free pint in any pub.

It’s a simple as that.

And so, this is where I find myself — because I’m of that age. I’m like those old blokes on the back row of the Great Lever Stand, wringing my hands together in fervent anticipation, and mumbling “nah then!”

I’m not really sure what my dad would say about all this. I don’t know what he’d say about the predicament BWFC finds itself in. But about this post, he’d probably take the piss for writing emotional things like this on the internet, say Christ in the way that only he can, and follow it up with “You’ve grown up lad. It wasn’t long since you tried to eat your own poo.”

…then he’d sip on his coffee and wink at me while reaching for his hip flask.

Dad/Husband/UXer/Photographer/Brit/Yank/BWFC/Red Sox — Taker of photos and writer of a few words to surround them. www.ainscowphoto.com

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