Ben Jackson

Supporting Bolton Wanderers

I could see the white arches of the Reebok Stadium from a room in my old house. They shined in the distance on sunny days. Wearing my Bolton scarf and team shirt, I used to watch the stadium from that room as the floodlights were gradually switched on. Match day.

I would get on the match bus with my dad (I would later be picked up by my mate’s dad when I started going to games with friends) and see the Wanderers. This was around 2004, when Bolton finished eighth in the Premier League. It was Arsenal’s unbeatable season, Manchester City finished 16th, and Leicester City were relegated with Leeds and Wolverhampton.

At a signing session with El-Hadji Diouf, Kevin Nolan and Gary Speed
At a signing session with El-Hadji Diouf, Kevin Nolan and Gary Speed

The following season, we finished sixth, winning a Uefa Cup spot for the first time in our history. Two seasons later, we placed seventh, reaching Europe again.

The first two seasons with my dad were special. I became engaged with Bolton and began to care deeply about our results. I proudly wore my scarf to school as an act of defiance towards some of my friends who supported the bigger teams even though they weren’t born in those cities. I argued with them about who was a real supporter. Although I was born in Bolton, I moved around a lot growing up. We moved back when I was 13, and I found I had retained a strong sense of identity with the town and, more importantly, Bolton Wanderers.

Inside the Reebok Stadium

Walking along the A6 with my dad after a win was probably the best part about those seasons. Sometimes I wore a flag as a cape. Cars would stop to ask us for the result and who had scored. After one rainy match in the evening, we jumped in puddles splashing each other on the way home.

Bolton Wanderers finishing in a European spot wasn’t an astonishing feat. We were managed well, on and off the pitch. We were a quality outfit, we rarely lost at home, and we had Jussi Jaaskelainen in net who, let’s be honest, was sometimes the main difference between winning and losing.

Signing international stars brought us new fans
Signing international stars brought us new fans

It was thanks to the foundations built by Sam Allardyce, the chairman Phil Gartside, and the owner Eddie Davies, that Bolton twice reached the dizzy heights of European football in the 2000s.

When I was upset about a loss, my dad used to remind me that he had watched Bolton in the 1970s when we were languishing in the old third division and playing at Burnden Park. He then assured me our relative success wouldn’t last for ever.

It felt like we were beating Arsenal all the time back then. We had decent cup runs and teams were afraid to come to the Reebok. We mostly played direct, route one football, but we also had some of the most skilful players around, stars who could really light up a game. The beautiful football we sometimes played was overlooked because we tended to upset the big clubs.

Pictured with the FA Cup
The closest Bolton will get to winning the FA Cup in my lifetime

Ten or so years later, my dad was proven right. Relegated to the Championship in 2012, and again to League 1 this season, the era of Premier League stability and the odd European cup run is well and truly over.

Homemade flag with 'In Megson We Trust' painted on it
At least the font was spot on

We finished bottom of the table this season, winning five out of 46 matches. And off the pitch, things weren’t much better. The club wasn’t able to pay its players and general staff multiple times.

As it tried desperately to find a new owner, the club had to sell assets such as the training ground, car park and hotel in order to avoid going into administration.

I’d gone to university in London in 2011 and have only gone to a handful of home and away matches since, so I’ve become more detached from the club. I’m now resigned to Bolton doing badly, rather than inconsolably upset, but that might be a part of growing up and accepting that nothing lasts for ever.

The author’s collection of BWFC scarves and flags
The author’s collection of BWFC scarves and flags

Seeing Bolton so far away from the top flight is new for me. I was lucky enough to see us compete with the likes of Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid (although I got thrown out in the 80th minute — for standing), Marseille, Seville and Sporting Lisbon. I’ve even watched us beat Manchester United, Arsenal and other Premier League greats. I saw us play in a League Cup final at the Millennium Stadium and an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley.

Pictured outside Wembley with friends
The less said about that semi-final, the better

Truly great players put on the white shirt. Jay-Jay Okocha, Youri Djorkaeff, Ivan Campo, Stelios Giannakopoulos, Jussi Jaaskelainen, Nicolas Anelka, Fernando Hierro, Rivaldo (almost!).
It’s a privilege, not a right, to see your club do well. Bolton isn’t the most fashionable team/town/set of fans, so we were always punching above our weight. But it’s not all about the glamour, is it?
For me, supporting Bolton is about friends, where I was born, and family. Without fail, my grandad asks me the same question every time I see him: “What about Bolton, eh?”

Bad fancy dress at Manchester City
Bad fancy dress at Manchester City

Well, Bolton is in trouble and our future remains uncertain:

• A secretive consortium, fronted by ex-player Dean Holdsworth, bought the club, and has begun repurchasing some of our assets.

• Fans have set up a supporters’ trust but I still don’t understand what its function is supposed to be (and I’ve read everything on its website and emails).

• We’ve offloaded lots of players, which you might say is a good thing.

• And after months of speculation, Bolton named Bradford City boss Phil Parkinson as the new manager.

Playing Arsenal in 2011
Playing Arsenal in 2011

All signs point to League 1 being our home for longer than just one season. But that shouldn’t put younger fans off. When I went to games with my dad, and then friends, it was more about the thrill of the competition and pride in the badge than the chance of silverware or signing big players.

Success means more when you’ve earned it and there’s plenty of fun to be had in the lower leagues. I’m sure the Whites will have their day in the sun, in the future, and it will taste all the better having been through such a struggle as this.

The Reebok Stadium in 2010
Lights off: The Reebok Stadium in 2010

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Ben Jackson

Editor of The Jackson Review