Bolton Wanderers were relegated to the third division of English football for the first time in 23 years in April 2016 – and it was probably the least depressing thing to happen in a chaotic season that got worse and worse as it went on. More than a year later, despite predictably doing things the hard way, the Whites secured promotion back to the Championship with a 3-0 victory on the final day of the season. 

It has been a long, tiring journey: Bolton stood on the very brink of extinction, submerged in disaster but found salvation. But could trouble strike yet again? Could there still be worse to come?

Perhaps, but we’ll start at the beginning and this story begins in late 2015.

The season wasn’t exactly going to plan. By November, Neil Lennon’s side were already adrift at the bottom of the Championship. They’d won one game and were lacking in any sort of structure, ability or inspiration. During this barren spell came unsettling rumours of administration and a lack of funds that refused to go away despite the club’s denials.

Then came the crushing news that the long-term owner Eddie Davies, who had made his fortune by selling kettle elements, would no longer be investing his own money into the club, after years of funnelling the debt into his own company, Burnden Leisure. That debt eventually totalled £200m, with £185m coming in through Eddie Davies.

The writing had been on the wall before that confirmation, though. Everyone already knew there was little money left; the last player Bolton had signed for a fee had arrived the previous January and even then the fee was less than £100,000. Multiple loan moves for much-needed attacking reinforcements fell through: the Wolves winger Rajiv van La Parra was all but signed when the move collapsed due to a lack of funds. 

Davies’s announcement came on the 13th anniversary of his takeover. By then, he had been trying to sell the club for four years. He had been unsuccessful, with no serious bidders ever coming forward. Without his funding, though, new owners had to be found – and fast.

Panic began to grip supporters. Players and staff began to be paid late. There were rumours of possible administration, or even liquidation. Bolton fans had always been assured that the debt was “soft” as it was all owed to the owner. But that unfathomable sum became very threatening.

In the weeks following the announcement many potential buyers emerged. Stelios Giannakopoulos, the former Bolton winger who helped Greece to the Euros, fronted his own consortium. An Egyptian venture capitalist called Roger Tamraz came forward, reportedly meeting Davies three times. It was, though, another former Wanderer, the striker Dean Holdsworth, and his consortium that seemed the most likely candidate. But nothing concrete materialised, with Davies not wishing to sell to a party that he felt did not have the means or desire to save the club. At least that was the public reason. While that concern was appreciated as the months rolled by it came to seem suffocating.

Amid the chaos the chairman Phil Gartside was taken seriously ill and had to step down from the role he had held for 16 years. The administrator Trevor Birch was brought in to act on behalf of the club in Gartside’s place. Birch’s job was to act as a “financial advisor”, which really meant he was to try to sell the club as quickly as possible while dealing with any monetary issues. With Birch having previously worked with Portsmouth and other similar sinking ships, the outlook seemed bleak. After only a couple of weeks in the job Birch said the club was in an “increasingly perilous position”.

His job in selling on the club was made a little easier when it was confirmed that Davies would be wiping the vast majority of the £185m of loan debt that was owed to him when the club was finally sold – an announcement that was met with jubilation by supporters. It seemed the crisis would soon pass.

It did not.

As Christmas approached nothing improved. Hours before Bolton kicked off against Brentford on November 30 it was revealed that the players hadn’t been paid that month. The game finished 1-1, but the highlight came when Sky’s cameras caught the infamous striker Gary Madine calling Lennon a “prick” as things continued to unravel. Bolton’s 300 non-playing staff weren’t even guaranteed that they’d be paid in time for Christmas (thankfully, they eventually were). Then, on December 10, HMRC issued the club with a winding up order over an unpaid tax bill.

Bolton’s first court date was set for mid-January and they were given permission to continue trading until then to try to get their affairs in order. On the pitch, Bolton finally managed to win a game, too. 107 days after the previous victory, Madine struck in a 1-0 win over their local rivals and fellow financial strugglers Blackburn Rovers. 

On top of all that had already occurred, Bolton were slapped with a transfer embargo on Christmas Eve. The embargo was punishment for being unable to file financial fair play returns with the Football League to prove enough funding was in place for the rest of the season. The club stated they couldn’t prove the guarantees as Davies hadn’t found a buyer at that time and wasn’t prepared to continue underwriting the club’s running costs. The embargo barred Bolton from making any additions to the squad; it was more than the usual embargo which prohibit clubs from spending more money than is coming in. This meant that, even though he offered to play for free, Bolton were unable to re-sign Shola Ameobi after his short-term deal came to an end. 

Unable. To sign. Shola. Ameobi.

Bolton supporters remained resolute. In a display of togetherness, a social media campaign called #FilltheMacron was launched. This saw fans from all over the world, from the USA to Australia to just up the road, buy tickets and then donate them to people who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford to go. In the new year, 1,000 hearty supporters made the 500-mile round trip to watch their club take on non-league Eastleigh in the FA Cup. The game ended in an embarrassing draw that featured two highlights: one Eastleigh fan invaded the pitch and nearly scored in open play and a Bolton follower managed to get on the ground’s roof. A couple of weeks later a meeting attended by over 1,000 fans, with many more watching on a stream, ended with a unanimous vote to form the Bolton Wanderers Supporters’ Trust to try to prevent such a financial meltdown ever happening again. The Trust may have messed things up since and lost public favour, but at the time it was a galvanising motion.

Their resolve would continue to be tested.

New year, same old Bolton. The players’ rotten form continued but everyone had pretty much stopped caring about results by that point. The real battle for survival wasn’t on the pitch, it would take place in a courtroom. The club’s first date in court ended in adjournment until February 22, despite the fact that HMRC wanted liquidation there and then. The courts granted Bolton a stay of execution due to the imminent sale of the stadium’s car park, with four consortiums identified as being interested in buying the club, Davies agreeing to wipe the debt upon completion of a sale and to allow extra time for players to be sold during the transfer window. 

No players were sold.

The first week of February was full of sobering news. Phil Gartside died at the age of 63. The club legend Stuart Holden announced his retirement from football after suffering several serious knee ligament injuries over the previous five years. 

As the vital day in the high court approached Bolton sold off one of their training grounds, Euxton, to their fiercest rivals Wigan Athletic. This was embarrassing for supporters, but needs must. But as February 22 grew ever closer there was no further news from the club on the takeover and no deal seemed close to being completed.

The day arrived and the club hadn’t been sold. For the second time in 2016, HMRC sought to liquidate. Bolton’s future laid in the hands of their legal representative Hilary Stonefrost. Some London-based supporters attended court and tweeted proceedings for those who anxiously waited to see if their beloved club would still exist the following morning.

It turned out their wait would have to go on a little longer. HMRC revealed that they had received a takeover witness statement from Bolton just 30 minutes before the hearing began and that they had been unable to read it in time. The case was adjourned until after midday. When the session resumed, it was announced that HMRC had rejected the club’s proposed deal. HMRC’s representatives didn’t hold back, revealing that club was now £200m in debt, that a £2.28m tax bill hadn’t been paid, that there was a shortfall of £175,000 of weekly PAYE and, devastatingly, that the car park sale used as a reason for adjournment in the previous court session had fallen through.

Worse followed as the judge revealed that not all of the debt that Davies was said to be clearing had actually been written off. Davies wanted around £15m of it back. News had broken the day before that Davies also wanted a percentage of future TV revenue and a stadium suite named after him. He was later named honorary president of the club, an astonishing move given the role had previously been held by Nat Lofthouse, Bolton’s greatest ever player. With that, any sympathy supporters may still have felt for him was destroyed.

But the most important news was a further adjournment, this time until March 7. An agreement for the sale of the club to new owners had been reached and a takeover, at last, was imminent. The adjournment came with the acknowledgment that if a deal hadn’t been concluded and if debts weren’t paid by March 7, the club would be wound up. Later that day, it was announced that Dean Holdsworth’s Sports Shield, in a joint venture with the Australian businessman Bruce Gordon, had bought the club in a 50-50 deal. It wasn’t completely finalised, and Football League approval was required, but all signs pointed to an end to the turmoil.

The 14 days to the next date in court passed by with no confirmation that the deal was complete. It turned out that the club had in fact received Football League approval for the Sports Shield takeover and were seeking a further adjournment for funds to be transferred. An 11am session was adjourned to 2pm and then that was adjourned until 2:30pm so the judge could read further documents provided by Wanderers. This lead to HMRC accusing Bolton of “playing with the judicial process”, which the club strongly denied.

The judge opted to adjourn for a third time. Bolton, teetering on the brink, survived as the judge stated that they could afford to pay HMRC an initial payment of what they owed and thus granted the club yet another two weeks to complete the deal. The judge issued a final, final warning telling the club they had “used up all of [their] discretion” and that “there’s no more room for leniency”.

It also transpired in court that the Football League had only granted provisional approval, meaning they would have to be provided with monthly updates of the accounts until August 2018 and a to-be-determined embargo would be imposed. The delay was probably caused by Bruce Gordon’s company, Thames Valley Capital, pulling its £2.5m investment from the consortium. It was replaced by an unnamed investor. The £2.2m tax bill remained unpaid.

On March 15, Bolton finally parted company with their manager Neil Lennon. The Northern Irishman had been given an impossible job and was working in dire circumstances, but there remained a sense that he hadn’t helped himself with a stream of poor managerial decisions. Many felt sympathy but few were sad to see him leave. Jimmy Phillips, a club servant of several decades and a fan favourite, plugged the gap as caretaker manager for the second time as he took the reins for rest of the season. In the following weeks, as a weird year continued to get weirder, Peter Reid and Andy Townsend were both appointed to help out in different roles. Bolton lost Phillips’s first game in charge 6-0 at Bristol City.

The next day Bolton were in court for what would be, for then at least, the final time. The sale had gone through: Burnden Leisure (the company that owned Bolton) was sold to Holdsworth and the mystery investor, recently disclosed as Ken Anderson, for just £1. All tax debts owed to HMRC had been paid, the guarantee to finance the remaining months of the season was in place, £170m worth of debt had been wiped from the club, leaving a more manageable figure, and the club was saved. The winding up order against Bolton Wanderers Football Club was cancelled. 

Hallelujah. 

Finally, everyone could get back to the football. Or so they thought.

Holdsworth and Anderson agreed to inject £7.5m to pay off debts. They expected that money would be nearly depleted by June. This money was loaned against club assets and the investors expected repayments to begin in July. One company, BluMarble, provided the £5m Holdsworth put in and secured it against Burnden Leisure’s assets. More loans and several outstanding debts were also assured against club assets, including the Macron Stadium, the adjoining Whites Hotel, conference facilities and the Lostock training ground. With relegation the assets as a whole were worth less but the land value remained stable as it was prime for development. The threat was clear. 

On top of all this, the club was losing £1m a month. Non-playing staff had been laid off but numerous players were on long contracts with Premier League era wages, some making as much as £20,000 a week. Relegation was confirmed with a 4-1 defeat at Derby County on April 9.

Because of the mess left behind by his predecessors, Anderson wasn’t able to give his first press conference until mid-April. He spoke with charm and impressed. He was pragmatic but hopeful, realistic but seemingly excited by the job at hand. He did, though, reveal that another £1m was owed to Davies and the current debt now stood at £29.35m. 

While the debt may have been reduced by £170m, what remained were high interest loans, against assets, to a business that was losing money. Still, at least some optimism had returned to Bolton. From April to the start of the following season in August 2016, the new regime proved themselves capable and business savvy. Although little was done about the remaining debt, there was good football. The Bradford City manager Phil Parkinson was somehow coaxed away from West Yorkshire, a decision supported by the majority. The embargo banning Bolton from adding to the squad was lifted, leading to an influx of players on loans and frees. Although everyone was sorry to see him leave, the previous season’s player of the year, Rob Holding, was sold to Arsenal, bringing in a helpful fee believed to be around £2.5m. The high earner Ben Amos was also shifted out, albeit only on a one-year loan. The Macron Stadium was being used for events and concerts more frequently and the team was heading in a positive direction.

But the drama was not over. 

A little over two months into the new ownership, a rift between Holdsworth and Anderson developed. It became apparent towards the end of the season that Anderson hadn’t provided the money he had agreed to pay, the explanation being that the money was only to be used if it was needed. But that “to-be-determined” embargo had come into effect and the audit accounts were overdue; this seemed a time to offer financial stability.

In May, Holdsworth provided an ultimatum of “pay the money or see what happens” which nearly saw players going without their salaries. It was Holdsworth who blinked first,and a refinancing of his BluMarble loan freed up funds to be able to pay. Several similar deadlines, threats and political manoeuvrings would occur over the following months. As Holdsworth changed his official title at the club from CEO to Director of Football, leaving that position a month later, it was obvious who was running things.

Bolton started to win. On the opening day of the League One season they beat the title favourites Sheffield United. That was followed up by the Wanderers’ first away victory in 495 days as they beat Wimbledon 2-1. They went unbeaten for the first seven games of the season. The football wasn’t pretty but it was a welcome return to on-field pragmatism and a defensive solidity not seen since Sam Allardyce was manager.

A poor run of form followed, as Parkinson struggled to adapt to injuries to key players and having to change to different systems. But once he settled on his preferred formation of a 4-2-3-1, with Zach Clough, Josh Vela and Sami Ameobi supporting the divisive striker Madine, the goals began to flow. It was a welcome relief after years of stress and hardship.

While there was joy on the pitch, the boardroom situation remained bleak. Relations between Anderson and Holdsworth had only worsened. By December the accounts to confirm that all transactions for a given year had been carried out legally still hadn’t been submitted. They were a full nine months late reportedly because they were dependent on Holdsworth selling his shares and Anderson becoming the sole owner. The club by then was losing £800,000 a month and Anderson personally funded the player wages for November, as it became clear that Holdsworth had no funds and had not paid off the debt to BluMarble – yet the additional funding that Anderson pledged to invest “if it was needed” was hardly utilised. Small sums were provided but quickly withdrawn when other funding became available. If Holdsworth didn’t sell, then there would be no funds to trade during December. Players would go unpaid and administration would rear its head once again.

At this point, the EFL, the governing body that is supposed to protect teams, was nowhere to be seen. Portsmouth, Leeds United, Leyton Orient, Coventry City, Charlton Athletic and countless others have found them equally ineffective.

Then, January 2017.

With the club barely scraping through December, an urgent injection of cash was required. As the transfer window opened it was clear what had to be done: someone needed to go. A couple of hiccups aside, the team were still picking up victories and were at the upper end of the table. The team that Parkinson had settled on and that was doing so well was going to have to be broken up. 

But who could be sold? The top earner Mark Davies was out for the season with yet another knee ligament injury and his contract was up at the end of the year. His fellow big-money player, Jay Spearing, while being instrumental in midfield, had generated no interest, and his contract was also expiring come the summer. Completing the trifecta of the highest earners, Darren Pratley was also injury-ridden. So it would have to be a sellable asset that would fetch a fee.

Bolton had only one such player. Their top-scorer and local lad Zach Clough was sold to Nottingham Forest for a measly sum of £2.5m, another example in a long, long list of the Trotters being incapable of getting the money the quality of the player warrants. It had to happen but it stung. Clough had turned down a move the previous January, with it being believed he wanted to stay at the club and didn’t want to leave the local area. It’s reported he didn’t want to leave this time either, but his sacrifice did more for the club than any of his goals ever did or ever could. He saved the club. The fee was enough to keep it running.

The sale of Clough led to an even more fractured boardroom. In the aftermath Anderson took to the official Bolton Wanderers website to deliver another of his increasingly regular letters to the fans. Anderson wrote, “Obviously, like everyone else, I was extremely disappointed to see Zach leave, but… I had to weigh up the financial benefits for the club of selling him and regrettably, following Dean’s refusal last week to contribute any funds to financially support the club, alongside me, I was left with no alternative but to try and reach the best deal possible with Forest.”

Not much had been heard from Holdsworth for a while, but he retorted Anderson’s claims in scathing style, saying they were “misleading and without foundation”. He wrote, “He (Anderson) alleges that I am to blame for the sale of Zach Clough – this is untrue… Ken Anderson made that decision, and negotiated the terms of the deal alone. I had no involvement in the sale… Ken’s allegation that I have refused to contribute funds to the club is also untrue. I have not refused to pay, but am unwilling to advance funds until I receive the proper financial information required for me to make financial investment into the club.”

It was at this point that whispers of a takeover began to surface, with Australian, US and Chinese investors all apparently interested. But no figure or concrete interest was made public. While the action on the pitch this time provided a welcome reprieve, it was impossible to concentrate solely on it.

In Anderson’s first press conference one thing he said that endeared himself to supporters was that he was going to be open. After enduring years of silence from the previous regime it was uplifting to know fans would no longer be treated with contempt. But as we came to learn, the Andersons would only be “open” as and when it suited them.

I say Andersons, because now is perhaps the best time to introduce another character: Lee Anderson, a football agent, is the son of Ken. He isn’t officially a member of staff, yet he has a club email address. While Lee’s contacts were undoubtedly the reason Bolton managed to sign a number of players both in the summer and in January (the fan favourite Adam Le Fondre returned to the club on loan), he has proven a constant embarrassment. He has a Twitter account from which he loves to send emoji ridden diatribes about how “good things are happening”, how everyone needs to “stick together” and how he’s so great at signing players. He’s had constant run-ins with fans, journalists, supporters’ blogs and just about anyone who has the temerity to suggest all is not well within the club.

When the going’s good and he has signed a player he’ll be online to tease the fans so they know he made the deal and lap up the praise, but when controversy strikes he’s quick to deflect or go quiet all together. In early July he tweeted out “AM bEing OBvlously opportunistic today.”. A truly cryptic announcement of the re-signing of Sami Ameobi by Da Vinci. It felt unprofessional and as if all the club’s dirty laundry is constantly on parade. Some fans love it. 

The openness of the Andersons, from Lee’s Twitter account to Ken’s letters, were and are used to keep fans onside and happy. Giving little glimpses inside of the club to satisfy everyone, but never addressing the real issues or fulfilling promises. Ken said that the club would be embargo free by June 2016. At time of writing the embargo is still in place and has been for more than 500 days.

In January 2017 the long-awaited financial reports were finally published, 10 months after they were due. The independent auditors issued a disclaimer of opinion, or no opinion. That rid them of responsibility as, because of the divide and uncertainty between Anderson and Holdsworth, they didn’t have enough information to say that the accounts could give them a true and fair view of the company’s future. 

After initially struggling in the New Year, as Parkinson once again had to scramble to find a new system, Bolton got back to form and secured promotion to the Championship with a second-place finish. Despite the remaining embargo, which limits the playing squad to 23 players on professional contracts, the Andersons once again managed to sign the winger Filipe Morais and the midfielder Jem Karacan, both on frees in February. Picking up the former Bradford man Morais turned out to be a master stroke, as he created 13 goals and scored two to give a much needed boost. As the finish line neared Bolton started to stutter and, in classic Wanderers fashion, just couldn’t get the job done. Bolton had to better the result of Fleetwood Town on the final day to secure promotion. Karacan would go on to score the opening goal in his first start for the club. His smart volley calmed nerves and set the tone for a dominant 3-0 victory.

As the final whistle blew thousands of supporters invaded the pitch to celebrate and, for once, nothing else mattered. Finances, debts, loans, skulduggery, all of it faded away and all that remained was delirium. Smoke bombs sent white and blue into the sky, songs were sung with emotion and even the players joined in. It was a celebration that the fans truly deserved.

Which brings us to the present day. The majority of the squad was out of contract in the summer. A lot of the dead weight was shifted, but David Wheater, Adam Le Fondre, Filipe Morais, Andrew Taylor and Jem Karacan all signed new deals. Jay Spearing, however, couldn’t agree a new deal as Bolton just couldn’t match his previous wage. With only Ben Amos and Darren Pratley remaining of the high earners, the days of £20,000-a-week contracts are finally coming to a close.

So what is the answer to the question asked so long ago? Could Bolton have broken so many fingernails in climbing out of the hole only to slip and slide right back down? Well, signs aren’t looking all that promising. The squad lacks depth and whispers of Parkinson’s dissatisfaction are getting louder. Behind the scenes, things are no rosier. In the first week of July, the left-back Dean Moxey, who was released in the summer, took to Twitter to say he hadn’t been paid a promotion bonus he was contractually owed. Lee Anderson, as he loves to do, told the world through Twitter how much Moxey was earning, retweeted tweets slagging Moxey off, called those who criticised him negative and then assured everyone the money would be in his account by the following Monday. By the following Thursday, Moxey this time went on Instagram and posted a stock image of an empty wallet, captioning it “where’s our wages” and tagging six players who’d also been released, ending with “#familiestofeed”. 

The PFA got involved and training was put on hold as they came into talk to the players. The PFA chief Gordon Taylor said, “The matter is being taken very seriously especially as players who have been released have not been paid. We have informed the league and expect them to take action to put this right.”

This year’s accounts, just like the previous ones, were also late for submission, this time three months rather than ten. Among startling details such as £100,000 pay-offs for former board members, 24% interest on the BluMarble loan and £50,000 going to Holdsworth for losing his job, Bolton have gone from £40m net assets to £15m net liabilities. Anderson also finally increased his share, by buying a further 10% off Holdsworth.

In August, Holdsworth’s company Sports Shield BWFC was liquidated following a winding-up order brought by Blu Marble. The third of the club Sports Shield owned will be sold off by the liquidator, either to Anderson or a third party, to try to recoup some of the £7m (£5m loan plus interest) owed to Blu Marble. Should that prove problematic, the liquidator could go for the companies that own the assets that the loan was secured against. Which in turn could lead to winding-up orders being issued to Burnden Leisure and the Whites Hotel. 

Everything remains in the balance and no one knows how it’s going to go. On the far side, just in sight through the fog of uncertainty, is a land of stability, improvement, perseverance and normality. Underneath is a sheer drop onto the spikes of bankruptcy, court cases, administration, liquidation, relegation, unpaid players, a hollow squad and a flattened stadium with a big PC World in its place.