WHATEVER happened in the build-up to Wanderers’ first-ever league meeting with Accrington Stanley it was inevitable the topic of conversation would eventually shift towards finances.

In the white corner, the club who were hours from liquidation in August, one no longer governed by a ‘rogue owner’ but who now face a brighter future after last night’s verdict.

In the red corner, football’s new paragons of financial virtue, a club seemingly determined to avoid mistakes its’ predecessors made in the distant past with a custodian, Andy Holt, intent on ruffling the establishment’s feathers with his views on sustainability in the game.

Were this game to have been played several months ago, this would have been the footballing equivalent of Beauty versus The Beast. Yet despite the contrasting backstories, there is a sense both clubs now share some common ground as they meet at the Wham Stadium.

Accrington’s average attendance this season is 2,997 but they prepare to welcome almost as many Bolton supporters tomorrow in what will most likely be their biggest gate of the year.

Their policy of cutting cloth accordingly and working their way up to the third tier has been admired the game over, yet there are signs even now that they have hit a glass ceiling.

Last season’s 14th placed finish was the highest in their history. This term, the going has been tougher and the Reds go into the game having failed to score in eight hours of football.

Keith Hill counts himself among the fans of Accrington’s sensible approach but having worked on similar fine margins at Rochdale, he knows the pitfalls as well as anyone.

“If you break that ceiling you make yourself susceptible,” he told The Bolton News.

“Accrington are over-achieving and eventually they will plateau out as a football club unless there’s big investment. To be fair to Andy Holt – that is spending your own money.

“They simply can’t generate the type of income to sustain League One football unless they continually sell their best players and assets, making themselves weaker. It’s a vicious circle you find yourself in when you are a relatively small club, without being disrespectful to them one bit.

“Unfortunately if you own a football club and want to sustain a League One lifestyle then you have to spend money or generate income.

“They are doing exceptionally well, Accrington, and John Coleman is a good player-finder, has a great scouting eye. Him and Jimmy (Bell) have done a magnificent job.

“It is really hard for any club to have a sustainability beyond where history says they should be without spending money.”

It is nearly 12 years since late Bolton chairman Phil Gartside discussed the potential of a two-tier Premier League, protecting the money ploughed in by owners like Eddie Davies, Steve Gibson (Middlesbrough) and Dave Whelan (Wigan) against the influx of wealthier foreign money in the game.

Fast-forward to 2019 and it could be argued that Gartside’s worst case scenario is being played out in the Championship. Boom and bust economics, with clubs no longer looking to avoid becoming the ‘next Leeds United’ or ‘next Portsmouth’ but rather the ‘next Bolton Wanderers’.

As Bolton know only too well, the financial gap between second and third tier is now greater than ever. And though both Hill and Coleman will be content with keeping their club in League One this season, the prospect of taking the next step brings up a whole new set of questions.

“Everybody talks about investment – it’s not investment, it’s spending money,” Hill said. “Unless you are a Sunderland in League One who could conceivably have a sustainable financial model you have to put your hand in your pocket.

“Everyone thinks it is Premier League but it isn’t. That division could be self-sufficient if it wanted to be. It’s the Championship where the major negative spend goes on.

“The Premier League is a farcical competition that rewards getting relegated. Parachute payments broke the system, it has, and real harm is being done in the Championship.

“I remember David Sharpe, who was chairman of Wigan, doing an interview and saying you basically had to be a billionaire to own a Championship club nowadays, not a millionaire. You have to finance expectation and ambition just to keep up with the Joneses.

“The director of football at Norwich said the other day they tried to sustain a Premier League lifestyle by overspending to the point where they are now just about financially secure again. He said if they got relegated again they would do it the right way this time, paying back debts, and that is a good way of going about it – West Brom did it back in the day, Burnley did it. It’s a great model, investing in getting a promotion.”

There are currently 14 points between Wanderers and Accrington although such margins will be better assessed when the EFL’s long-awaited verdict is finally announced.

Hill wants the focus to be kept on the next 90 minutes of football and maintaining a healthy personal record against Stanley of nine wins from 11 meetings.

“There are certain aspects of John Coleman’s teams, a DNA, so we know what to expect,” said the Bolton boss. “They won’t be too defensive, it’s not how he does it, but we challenge our players to be flexible in the way they do things.

“He’s done a magnificent job, as have his players, and they are a good team to watch”.

Central to Wanderers’ victory against MK Dons last weekend was returning midfielder Liam Bridcutt, who had been out of action since October with a broken sternum.

“He probably shouldn’t have played but I can’t stress how important that game was to have experienced players,” Hill reflected. “Knowing there was a mass of expectation from everyone because we were getting so close to positive points, potentially the way the opponents were going to play, and we knew there could be some frustration around the stadium.

“It was important we got Liam out there and he’s suffered a bit of soreness this week but I am sure he’ll be fit for Saturday.”