BOLTON WANDERERS REVIEW OF 2013: The ups and downs of the Whites' Year
CONSIDERING one goal was all that stood between Wanderers and the chance of a Premier League return via the play-offs back in May, the bright lights of the big time have never seemed so far away.
This was a year when the harsh reality of life outside the elite really started to hit home.
No longer seen as a temporary adventure or a period of living rough, this spell in the club’s history just might just be viewed as the time in which Wanderers rejoined the back of the queue and had to wait patiently for their chance to come again.
This season sees the last big parachute payment, after which the austerity measures to keep things operating on an even keel will dig even deeper.
It is a hard thing to stomach with the glory days still so fresh in the memory – and as the man in the firing line, Dougie Freedman’s job is made no easier by the fact such recent parallels can be made.
Wanderers enter into the New Year 18th in the table and yet there have been times when momentum has gathered sufficiently to mean the promotion dream has not seemed such a distant prospect.
Freedman nearly pulled off a miracle taking the team from 20th in early February to sixth going into the final game of the season, when failure to beat Blackpool spelled a depressing end to hopes of an immediate Premier League return.
Since then he has embarked on a rebuilding job under tight, and perhaps understandably cautious financial restraint. It remains a job half finished, and as such, his team flitter frustratingly between one that looks capable of going on a run of results and one that exhibits a familiar soft centre.
The Scot is not without his critics on the terraces – with some fans taking issue with constant squad rotation, others with the possession-based brand of football he has tried to employ.
But he is nothing if not an old head on young shoulders. And as someone well versed in shopping for bargains at his former club Crystal Palace, many of whom went on to secure top-flight football just eight months after he left Selhurst Park, the club does have someone who knows the course well.
Freedman also remains confident he has the long-term backing of club owner Eddie Davies and chairman Phil Gartside in his mission to rebuild which, if correct, gives him a commodity rare in the footballing word – time.
Just two months into the job, Freedman entered into 2013 on the back of some poor Christmas form, derailing some of the early progress he had made.
Defeat at Leeds United to a solitary Luciano Becchio penalty had set the tone for a disappointing January that yielded just two points.
Freedman has since conceded he should have strengthened his squad before the end of the November loan window and it was not until Craig Davies arrived for a modest £300,000 fee from Barnsley that things started to move on the transfer front.
One of the squad’s top earners Martin Petrov left for Espanyol a couple of weeks later, and by the end of the month Freedman had also brought in midfield battler Medo Kamara from FK Partizan and youngsters Cian Bolger (Leicester City) and Jan Gregus (Banik Ostrava).
A solid draw at Freedman’s former club Crystal Palace and a replay FA Cup victory over Sunderland were a few of the early-year positives, as was the improved goalscoring form of Marvin Sordell, but when Wanderers lost at Watford on February 2 they slipped to 20th position in the Championship table, just three points off the relegation zone.
The manager was unequivocal in his belief things would soon come good, biting back at post-match suggestions that a battle against the drop could be on the cards.
“I do not think anyone who wants to help the club should be thinking that way,” he told The Bolton News.
“We’re in a difficult moment but we will stand together as a group and springboard up the league.”
In fairness to the Scot, improvement was almost instantaneous.
After beating Burnley at the Reebok, draws at Nottingham Forest and Derby County were followed by a magnificent five-game winning streak.
That upturn in form had coincided with the loan arrival of Craig Dawson from West Brom.
The former Radcliffe Borough defender had not only lent a calm assuredness at the back, he also weighed in with four goals in victories over Hull City, Peterborough United and Barnsley.
Marcos Alonso was another player reborn in the Freedman camp, and though the issue of the Spaniard’s imminently expiring contract was a lingering concern, his form at left-back was a revelation.
Alonso’s solitary goal against Brighton put Wanderers eighth in the table on March 9, just three points away from Billy Davies’s Nottingham Forest in the final play-off position.
Defeats against Ipswich and Charlton either side of the international break looked to have derailed the progress. But when Huddersfield, Wolves and Bristol City were put to the sword in quick succession, the Whites found themselves in the play-off places for the first time.
They would have to manage for the rest of the season without the inspirational Jay Spearing, whose form in a loan spell from Liverpool saw him sweep the board in the club’s end-of-term awards.
The Scouse terrier broke his toe at Ashton Gate and his qualities were lacking as Wanderers were edged out at Leicester, where an in-form David Ngog also picked up a shoulder injury that ended his campaign.
A win against Middlesbrough and a creditable draw against Premier League bound Cardiff set up a final day showdown with Blackpool where victory would ensure a play-off spot.
A bumper 24,884 fans packed into the Reebok, 50 years since the clubs had contested the famous Stanley Matthews FA Cup final.
And the Bolton fans would again be feeling the pain come the final whistle.
Despite hauling back a two-goal deficit, Anthony Knockaert’s late winner for Leicester at Forest coupled with Wanderers’ inability to find a winner against Blackpool contributed to an agonising near miss.
It would also be a sad note on which the club bid goodbye to legendary striker Kevin Davies, who parted ways after a distinguished decade at the club.
Freedman vowed after the final whistle he would make changes over the summer to make the Whites a stronger prospect.
Much of his work was accomplished behind the scenes – a radical overhaul of the medical, sports science and analysis departments was undertaken, including the return of Mark Leather, one of the mainstays of Sam Allardyce’s backroom.
Alonso opted to sign for Serie A giants Fiorentina while the summer’s other major departure saw Sam Ricketts have the final year of his contract cancelled to join Wolves.
Incoming Financial Fair Play rules had a major bearing on Freedman’s transfer policy over the summer and the Scot had to work hard to pick up Bosman bargains such as Alex Baptiste and Marc Tierney.
Rob Hall came in from West Ham, with his fee decided at £750,000 by tribunal, while Jermaine Beckford eventually signed for a nominal fee after some drawn out discussions with Leicester.
At this time Wanderers hit the headlines for the wrong reasons after announcing a two-year sponsorship deal with pay day money lenders QuickQuid.
It was a move quickly and strongly rejected by supporters and the ferocity of their response forced the club into an unprecedented U-turn. A new deal with University of Bolton-based sustainable energy firm FibrLec was agreed within days.
After fan power won the day, there was a fresh feel about the club as they battled to a draw against Burnley on the opening day and the mood was heightened further when Jay Spearing was signed permanently on August 9.
In what was a surprise move at the time, Marvin Sordell and Keith Andrews were allowed to leave on a season-long loan to Charlton and Brighton respectively, seemingly to balance the books.
Wanderers looked leaner and meaner, with youngsters such as Hall and Sanmi Odelusi shining through in the Capital One Cup win at Shrewsbury Town.
How could it possibly go wrong?
After a home draw against Reading, things took a turn for the worst with defeats against Forest, QPR and Tranmere in the cup. Failure to add further recruits before the close of the transfer window riled the fans – and Freedman’s cause was not helped after a comprehensive 4-1 defeat at local rivals Blackburn.
By the time the Whites lost at Brighton in September they were in the midst of their worst start to a season since 1902. And while the record books were being re-written, some were calling for change at the top.
With Bolton second bottom of the table, bookmakers made Dougie Freedman favourite to be the next Championship manager to get the chop, while supporters had also directed their ire at chairman Phil Gartside.
The loan arrival of a trio of players – Liam Feeney (Millwall), Kevin McNaughton (Cardiff) and Neil Danns (Leicester City) would prove pivotal to lightening the mood, A win at Birmingham – the first in 11 attempts – set the ball rolling. Things were not going well at the Reebok, with frustrating stalemates against Yeovil, Sheffield Wednesday and Ipswich summing up the Whites’ difficulties in front of home fans.
But on their travels Wanderers looked a more organised prospect. Three points were brought home from Bournemouth and Watford and it appeared a surge up the table was being made significantly earlier than it had at the tail end of last season.
Just when it all appeared to be clicking into place, inconsistency struck again in December to leave the club hovering in limbo, a 5-3 defeat at Leicester City emphasising the gap between the promotion contenders and the current Wanderers side.
Freedman remains sure his vision to make the club more self-sufficient and financially viable is the right one. But his whole ethos requires patience and perhaps even a little blind faith.
Looking on the bright side, a saviour may emerge in the new year, as it did with Dawson, perhaps in the return to fitness of Mark Davies, or further down the line, Stuart Holden?
Business in the January window will again provide a barometer as to just where the club want to pitch themselves.
Right now it is difficult to tell whether Wanderers are a side in transition or regression.