Saturday, 2 May 2015

That was then, but this is now...

On May 15th 2005, I was among 27000 supporters at the Reebok Stadium as Bolton Wanderers signed off a successful season with a 3-2 defeat of Everton, qualification for Europe and a 6th place finish in the Premier League, English football's top tier.

Today, ten years later on May 2nd  2015, I was among 18000 supporters at the same venue, now the Macron Stadium, as Bolton Wanderers signed off an unsuccessful season with a 1-0 defeat to Birmingham City, and an unexciting 18th place finish in the Championship, English football's second tier. 

At the end of both games, the players and their families did a lap of honour, as is now traditional in football, with fans given the opportunity to show their appreciation of the players whose wages they help to pay. 

There, the similarity ends. 


Bolton v Everton, May 15th 2005
May 15th 2005 was one of those glorious end-of-season days, with shirt-sleeved fans lapping up the Spring sunshine, and looking forward to the prospect of the club's first ever European campaign. The players being applauded round the pitch on that sunny afternoon included Spanish icon Fernando Hierro, the late great Gary Speed, Greece's Euro 2004 winner Stelios Giannakopoulos, the talented but temperamental talisman El Hadji Diouf and the outrageously gifted Nigerian Jay-Jay Okocha, as well as English workhorses Kevin Nolan and Kevin Davies. Glitter cannons showered blue and white confetti all over the pitch as the PA system blasted out the Bolton fans' song of the year, "Is This the Way to Amarillo?", made famous that year by local comedian Peter Kay's Comic Relief version. It was truly an exhilarating time to be a Wanderers fan: "We're all going on a European Tour" was gleefully sung to the tune of "Yellow Submarine", and sure enough, the following year, fans of unfashionable Bolton Wanderers were following their heroes to Bulgaria, Turkey, Portugal and France. I myself, with my son, travelled to the iconic Stade Vélodrome in Marseille as Wanderers exited Europe at the first knock-out stage the following February. Two years later, in a second European campaign, Wanderers famously held the mighty Bayern Munich to a 2-2 draw at the Allianz Arena. We perhaps didn't fully realise at the time how lucky we were.

Bolton v Birmingham City, May2nd 2015
May 2nd 2015 was, by contrast, a cold, wet day. A patched up Wanderers team, including academy graduates so unfamiliar to even regular fans that we were scouring our programmes to find out who they are, battled gamely in a meaningless end-of-season fixture, losing without ever looking outclassed, but without ever looking anything like good enough to win. At the end of the game, with only a small proportion of the crowd bothering to remain behind, the players and their families took a brief and somewhat sheepish lap of honour, to applause which was, if anything, sympathetic in tone. Instead of superstars of the world game, they were a mixture of fresh-faced academy graduates, promoted to the First Team to fill in for injured regulars, and loan signings from clubs where they were surplus to requirements. The two most recognisable faces were burly veterans Emile Heskey and club legend Eidur Gudjohnsen, both possibly playing their final games for the club having been drafted in by manager Neil Lennon to bolster a threadbare squad.


The contrast between these two days was stark, and glaringly illustrates the roller-coaster fortunes of any football club outside the Premier League's true élite. That 2005 match was played in a packed and raucous stadium, with the game featured that night on "Match of the Day", its result and significance prominent in the next day's newspapers. The pre-match buzz in those days saw crowds of fans gathered around the Stadium's front entrance, invariably catching a glimpse of famous faces - former players, pundits, celebrity fans and the like. Today, the pre-match atmosphere around the ground was good natured enough, but bleak and subdued. The Birmingham fans, present in good numbers and excellent voice, provided a touch of noise, fun and humour with their traditional end-of-season fancy dress (I saw, amongst others, a duck, four Teletubbies, a carrot, a surgeon in a blood-stained operating gown and Jesus), but the feeling among Wanderers fans was one of "let's get this over with", after such a poor season.

It is clear to even a casual observer that our popular and respected new manager Neil Lennon has a huge job on his hands over the summer, rebuilding a team with some sense of pattern and stability on a very tight budget. There is much promise, both in the spirit and manner of play that we have seen at times under Lennon, and in the performances of some players: It is blindingly obvious that Adam Bogdan in goal and Mark Davies in midfield are the sole survivors of our Premier League days, so keeping them would be a good start. American Tim Ream, player of the year for the second year in succession, is also a class act. Striker Adam LeFondre also looks worth making efforts to sign permanently. Almost every other player in the squad has some sort of question mark over them, yet youngsters like Max Clayton, Josh Vela, Zach Clough and Tom Walker look to have a future. There are also injured absentees to remember, notably Darren Pratley, who was playing his best football since joining us when he got injured. 

But my overwhelming sense today was of nostalgia for a golden era under Sam Allardyce. In our eleven years in the Premier League, we saw most of the modern game's superstars at the Reebok, and quite often sent them home with tails between legs. The oft-repeated sight of an angry and frustrated Arsène Wenger on our touchline as his Arsenal were outfought (and more often than he would care to admit, outclassed) at the Reebok, is etched in the minds of all Wanderers fans from that era. And let us not forget that it was the much-maligned Gary Megson who gave us our only modern-era home win over Man United, as well as bringing to the club and nurturing  some wonderful talents such as Gary Cahill, Stuart Holden, Mark Davies and Chung-Yuong Lee.

Perhaps above all, today reminds me and other Wanderers loyalists that football is a metaphor without parallel for life itself, especially if you support a team outside the Premier League's  permanent élite. I hope that fans of the likes of Burnley, Southampton, Stoke City, West Brom, Swansea, QPR, Leicester, Hull, and now Bournemouth, Watford and whoever else goes up remember to drink it all in, because for many of them, their moments in the sun, like Bolton's in 2005, will be fleeting.

Having said that, I also genuinely believe in the psychologically therapeutic value of following a football team, especially a less successful one. Football provides an ultimately harmless mirror of life's ups and downs, and as such can serve as a useful and safe outlet for our emotions, be they good or bad. Having followed Bolton Wanderers through thick and thin for around fifty years, I can honestly say that they have given me a chance harmlessly to rehearse every emotion life can throw at me. And in so doing, I feel that maybe, just maybe, I can cope better with life's real ups and downs. 

Supporters of Bournemouth take note - enjoy it while it lasts. Not long ago, you were at the foot of football's 4th tier, and for all we know, you may all-too-soon go the way of Blackpool and Wigan, whose recent glory days must already seem a very long time ago. And as for me, yes, I didn't return home today full of the joys of Spring as I did back on May 15th, 2005. But I am looking forward to better times ahead. I'm just not sure how far ahead they are....

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