Former Wanderers player and chief executive Paul Fletcher – who led the project to build the Reebok Stadium – shares extracts from his book ‘A Pitch Too Far’ which tracks the sad decline of the club he loves. Part four...

Bolton Wanderers directors Graham Ball and chairman Gordon Hargreaves were leading the relocation of their club. 

Their vision was a good one, they had ambitions to compete in the new Premiership and to do this they would need a new stadium. 

They planned to be alongside Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and the like. And this could only be achieved via a new stadium. 

They told me that they had investigated numerous sites in the Bolton area and settled for the site at Middlebrook, Horwich

Like many directors of football clubs at that time, they were both very successful businessmen but knew very little about new stadiums. 

But how could they, none had been built during their tenure.

On my first day at the new offices on Manchester Road, 100 yards from Burnden Park, I asked, ‘Why have you laid the pitch first? It’s normally the job that gets done last!’ Their answer was, ‘We intend to have the best pitch in the league, which will help us to win games.’ 

My second question should have been, ‘Does this not help the opposing team to win games?’ but I decided to stay quiet.

It was an honest, amateurish answer, the type you often get from many football directors. They hadn’t seen how these new stadium buildings were built, normally the steel framework goes up first, then, as the interior of the building takes shape the concrete terracing is lifted into position from the pitch area. 

Clearly this was not going to happen at the Middlebrook Stadium as the stadium had to be constructed from the outside with the concrete terracing being lifted over the steel frame as no-one was allowed onto the pitch. 

When I discussed this with project manager Dave Murphy, he just rolled his eyes saying, ‘That’s football directors for you.’

It was an honest (but stupid) and very costly mistake to consider a quality pitch would benefit the home team and a number of similar miscalculations were made during this construction period. 

But nothing matched the size of the error of the location of the stadium in Horwich. But at the outset there was great optimism that the new stadium would establish Bolton Wanderers in this new league, right there amongst the big boys. 

Incredibly Colin Todd’s team had been promoted in our last season at Burnden and the future looked bright. Goodbye Sheffield United, Preston North End, Bristol Rovers; welcome Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal.

Let’s go back a little. One of my early jobs at the new stadium was to sell the ‘naming rights’ for the stadium which was slowly becoming known and referred to in the press as ‘The Middlebrook Stadium.’ 

I’d worked alongside Tony Stephens at Huddersfield to sell the naming rights to the builder Alfred McAlpine Ltd. Tony was ex-commercial director at Wembley stadium (a job I was to walk into a couple of years later) and Tony later became commercial agent for David Platt, Alan Shearer, Michael Owen, Dwight York, Robbie Keane and David Beckham.

At the first meeting with Reebok the proposition was put to them (as I sat and listened to the discussion between Reebok CEO David Singleton and one of the Bolton directors). I was introduced as the new BWFC CEO.

The meeting went something like this:
BWFC ‘Thanks for calling in, we want Reebok to name our new stadium in Horwich.’
Reebok: ‘Why would we want to do that?’
BWFC: ‘Because it’ll give you lots of publicity.’
Reebok: ‘We’ve already got lots of publicity.’
BWFC: ‘You already sponsor the club and you are a Bolton company.’
Reebok: ‘Yes we sponsor the club but our head office is in Lancaster.’

In summary, at the end of the frosty meeting, Reebok had shown no interest in naming the stadium and on leaving David Singleton said to me: ‘If you can find a good reason for us naming the stadium, that will help our Reebok business, let me know and I’ll put the idea to my board.’

We all shook hands and they left the meeting. As David Singleton was getting into his car he turned to me and said ‘Paul, did you use to play for Smithills?”‘Yes, I did.’
‘Don’t you remember me, I played centre-half for Canon Slade, I used to kick you all over field. 
Why don’t you come and have a look around our head office in Lancaster and we can have a chat?’

Within two months the deal was done. Bolton’s new stadium would be called The Reebok Stadium, or even better, ‘The Reebok.’

One morning, a few months later, a month or so before the stadium opened, I was working from my office on Manchester Road and an old friend Paul Gaskell called me. 
Paul had worked for the Bolton Evening News and we had both joined Bolton Health Studio on the same day and had become close friends ever since.

Paul had rung me to ask;
‘Paul, can you do me a big favour, one of my neighbours in Westhoughton wants to buy a box at The Reebok, he’s got a few quid so can you help him out?’
‘I’m sorry Paul, all the boxes have been sold, and there’s a waiting list of about a dozen, should anyone drop out.’
‘Well, do me a big favour, just show him around the new stadium and see if you can move him up the pecking order.’
‘OK, I’ll do my best, what’s his name,’ I asked as I found a pad to scribble on.
‘He’s called Eddie, Eddie Davies.’

The Bolton News:

As I’d promised, I rang Eddie up to invite him to have a look around the new stadium, a few months before it opened. We were still working out of portacabins the day Eddie visited and I recall he was wearing an old fawn raincoat like Columbo would wear.

I remember thinking, I hope he can afford a box if I can find him one.

He was a nice guy and we had a good look around and I apologised that there were no boxes for sale as we walked into an empty area in the north stand that was going to be developed as offices. 

As we stood at the window looking at the (wonderful) pitch, Eddie stepped back, spit on the floor, and began to mark a line with his foot on the floor amongst the dust and debris and the spit.

‘Can you build me a box here?’ he asked.
‘I don’t think so Eddie, all our boxes have seats outside, there’ll be no seats there, you’ll all have to sit behind the glass to watch the match.’
‘Oh, that’s all right. Just tell me how much its going to cost and I’ll come back in a month and tell you how I want it fitting out.’
During our chat I remember asking him, ‘what business are you in?’
‘Switches,’ he replied. ‘We make thermostatic switches for electric kettles.’

I did manage to build Eddie his own box, he paid the bill and we got on with the exciting season. Initially Eddie Davies was very low-key. At the end of our first season I remember chairman Gordon Hargreaves asking me ‘who’s the guy who has the box without the seats outside?’

‘That’s Eddie Davies,’ I replied. ‘Why do you ask?’
‘Oh, it’s just that he has some very high-profile guests joining him, mayors, politicians, rock stars, international sports stars. After the next match I want you to invite him into the boardroom as my guest for a chat. What’s his business?’
‘Electric kettles’ I recalled.

And, as they say, the rest is history. 

It wasn’t long before Eddie Davies was invited to join the Bolton Wanderers board of directors and over the next decade, reportedly invested around £180,000,000 in the club.

There were some difficulties I recall with the Department of Transport objecting to the 35,000-seater capacity that the club were hoping to achieve. 

The fear was that the flow of traffic leaving the stadium after the game would cause confusion on the M65 motorway. 

If I remember this correctly, they finally agreed at 31,000, but the club decided to build the 35,000 seater model and omit the first five rows of seating which could be added at a later date, once the traffic problem had settled.

This obviously added a cost to the stadium as the turnstiles, terracing, concourses, roof cover (drip-line), evacuation calculations had to be provided for 4,000 additional seats, which to this day have never been needed. 

In fact, the sad statistic that a Bolton Wanderers fan pointed out to me a few weeks ago was that the 15,887 average gate in the 2018/19 season was similar to the 15,820 average attendance during the last season at Burnden Park …….. 22 years and a new £40million stadium later.

The stadium, designed by architects Populous, certainly looked impressive but I was very disappointed at the opening game against Everton, which we lost. 

The stadium didn’t create the noise and the atmosphere that I had hoped. 

In my view the curvature of the roof allows the noise to drift out of the building, when compared with the flat, ‘shed’ roofs at Burnden park encouraged the sounds to bounced around stands. It was nobody’s fault as the fans of Arsenal (and Huddersfield) complain about the same problem. 

These days we insist that architects are also expected to design ‘atmosphere’ into their pretty stadiums irrespective of what the stadium looks like. This normally results in a flat roof.

During my time as CEO at the Reebok, I was fortunate enough to be in the next office to club president Nat Lofthouse. One morning he came in to see me looking very worried. 

He had just taken a phone call from the TV broadcaster of the FA Cup draw who had asked him to go down to their London based studios to officially ‘draw’ out the teams who were scheduled to play in the semi-finals. 

He’d agreed to attend the event but was concerned that he wasn’t being paid for a full days travelling/working and had to pay his own train ticket down to London, get a taxi across to the studios and then, as they had told him …..’send the receipts in the posts and your expenses will be refunded, within a month.’

I waited a week nearer to the event before ringing the studios posing as Nat’s agent and informing them that he wouldn’t be coming as the event was badly organised and they were taking advantage of his good nature. 

Finally I asked, ‘How much is Alan Shearer getting for pulling a few balls out of the same bag?

I was told it was ‘confidential information’ to which I replied, ‘That’s fine, Nat won’t be coming unless he gets the same fee – and I’ve just had a chat with Alan Shearer and I know what fee we are talking about. Ring me back if you want to re-consider the position.’

As expected they rang back within 10 minutes to agree the fee …… plus a few other things I’d asked for like, VIP taxi to collect Nat from his home and drive him to Piccadilly station, Manchester (and back later that day); reserved first-class train tickets, VIP taxi to London studios …….. and a four-figure fee that began with a three.
Nat nearly fell off his chair when I told him, “Bloody hell! That’ll pay for this year’s holidays.”

It was rewarding to repay him in a small way for teaching me how to head a ball when I was 16.

During the first season at the new Reebok Stadium I took an unexpected call from the FA chairman Dave Richards (now Sir David Richards) who I’d got to know very well. 

On a number of occasions, I’d sat and chatted with Dave on the top table when I was guest speaker at Sheffield Wednesday Football Club where he was chairman (thank you again Dale Carnegie for getting me out of my comfort zone, I’m still after-dinner speaking after my first dinner over 30 years ago). We’d become good friends.

‘Paul,’ he said, ‘you’ve done a great job at the McAlpine and at the Reebok Stadium, The FA have just agreed to put up a new stadium for the England team, how do you fancy joining us as director of Commercial Affairs?’
‘Dave, that’s sounds great, where is the new stadium located?’ I asked.
‘It’s in London,’ he replied………….. at Wembley.

The new Reebok stadium was up and running, Bolton Wanderers were back in the Premiership, new chairman Phil Gartside and director Brett Warburton were doing a great job and they had just told me, confidentially, that Sam Allardyce was to be appointed as the new manager.

The future at The Reebok looked very rosy.

My job was done. my childhood club had a great future ahead in its new multi-million-pound stadium…and a fantastic new manager – how could anything go wrong? 
Europe here we come.