HAILED as a victory for fan power but more accurately common-sense ownership, the decision to cancel July’s friendly game at troubled Oldham Athletic says a great deal about the modern Bolton Wanderers.
Seven days after announcing the match as part of their early pre-season schedule, the club issued another short statement on Monday knocking it on the head.
In the days between there had been pleas from Oldham fan groups to boycott in support of their ongoing battle with owner, Abdallah Lemsagam, whose stormy reign has coincided with the club dropping out of the Football League for the first time in 115 years.
Wanderers’ fanbase had been sympathetic. Some had even called for donations to be made in lieu of tickets to Latics supporters’ efforts to buy the stadium.
For a relatively meaningless pre-season friendly which would ordinarily be watched by only a couple of thousand people, it seemed an unusual PR mis-step from Bolton to wade into such an uncertain environment.
In short, it was a hassle that Wanderers just didn’t need. Ian Evatt has spoken about getting his pre-season ‘just right’ with a training camp in Portugal followed by games against opposition of incremental quality so that his team can hit the ground running in League One.
Did the club really need to insert themselves into the politics which is sadly dominating the agenda at Boundary Park?
The discussion of boycotts was bad enough – but protests outside the ground were also a strong possibility, as was disruption to the game itself. All mither that Evatt and his team could do well without.
Behind the scenes, concerns were also being raised directly to the Wanderers board via the Wanderers Supporters’ Trust, who had met with CEO Neil Hart last week.
Their role in the club’s change of heart underlines how differently the organisation is now viewed within the UniBol of late.
The trust had found themselves in a slightly invidious situation at the time of Football Ventures’ takeover in 2019, as they had been one of the parties who had pushed for access to the ‘data room’ – effectively as opposition in the process.
Of course, the previous owner had cast them as the bad guys for very different and self-serving reasons, but it has taken the trust time to wash itself clean of the mud which was slung.
The lines of communication with chief executive Neil Hart have been strong since his first few weeks at the club and it was after a frank and constructive conversation last week that concerns were passed on, not only from Bolton’s supporters but also representations from the Oldham side.
And that is where Wanderers fans can really draw some encouragement. The negative response to the game will have taken the club by surprise – that much is obvious – but the willingness to engage in reasoned and constructive debate is something which should be celebrated.
A problematic relationship has developed at Boundary Park which echoes the same one Wanderers supporters had with their previous club owner. It was toxic and was only ever going to drag the club's fortunes down.
That is why the feeling of solidarity was so strong. On paper it was a warm-up game with little relevance but for the Oldham supporters it was a first chance to hammer home their call for change. One suspects it will not be the last.
It is not the first time that Bolton fans have forced a quick rethink.
Many moons ago, Wanderers found themselves at the centre of an unwanted controversy when they agreed a two-year deal with lending firm QuickQuid to sponsor their shirts and training kit.
The response from Bolton fans – still smarting from relegation – was vitriolic to say the least, prompting a 45,000-strong petition and condemnation from local MPs.
In the same year, Newcastle United had defended their agreement with payday lender, Wonga, and surprisingly persisted with it for three seasons.
Then-chairman, Phil Gartside, had been ready to do the same. But even he voiced his surprise at the ferocity of the supporters’ response, eventually backing down a week later and hurriedly signing a deal with FibrLec – at significantly reduced rates.
In this case, Wanderers have lost nothing by cancelling a friendly, other than more potentially negative headlines and hassle closer to the time.
The process has shown that there are lines of communication and a willingness on the club’s behalf to listen to the supporters, which is something other fanbases – including Oldham – will look upon with some degree of envy.