Hours before the League One season kicked-off, Bolton were not sure if they had a team to play at Wycombe. MARC ILES tells the behind-the-scenes story of a chaotic week.

The Bolton News:

AT 6am on the opening day of the season, two cars hurtled down the M6 on their way to Buckinghamshire containing half of the Bolton team destined to play against Wycombe Wanderers that afternoon.

The night before there had been a panicked phone call from Phil Parkinson to Under-18s coach Nicky Spooner expressing doubts over whether he would have enough players to field a team, let alone fill his bench.

It was the kind of conversation had by Sunday League managers on a weekly basis. But this was the four-time FA Cup winners, a founder member of the Football League, albeit one seemingly taking its last gasps of breath during the throes of a hyper-complicated takeover.

Hunched up, dragged from their bed in the early hours, were some of the faces who would go on to become the Junior Whites – the youngest team in Bolton Wanderers’ history.

Five days before the Wycombe game, the EFL had announced that Bolton could start the season, having received satisfactory evidence of the club’s financial viability. Neighbouring Bury were told they could not start their campaign against MK Dons, after missing the deadline to substantiate their case.

Acting EFL chair Debbie Jevans said she had been convinced that Bolton’s takeover by the Football Ventures consortium was close enough to allow them to play, this despite them still officially being in administration – which had cost the club a 12-point start in League One.

Days passed, and despite continued assertion from those around the deal that things were “close” it remained unsigned.

Various factors were blamed. Minor changes in the wording of key documents, squabbles between the cast of half a dozen involved, and the fact people were scattered in three different continents at one stage, all added up to a nightmarish scenario.

If the EFL was convinced Wanderers were in a fit state to start the season, the scene unfolding in the hotel lobby at the Holiday Inn, High Wycombe, was something quite different.

International striker Josh Magennis had refused to board the bus the previous day, and a handful of the ‘senior’ players had no idea whether the EFL had passed their registration in time to feature.

Jack Hobbs, Harry Brockbank, James Weir and Preston North End loanee Josh Earl were among those in limbo – while others were starting to express serious doubts about whether the game could go ahead with such ramshackle preparation.

That any match took place at all was almost exclusively the work of Parkinson and Sharon Brittan – the soon-to-be chairman of the club, who was negotiating frantically with both the league and the players to ensure they took the field, even if it was in an off-the-rail kit bought wholesale from Hummel.

To explain some of the frustration within the group, players had waited nearly 23 weeks to be paid but after some funds were released there had been a discrepancy between what actually hit their accounts, and what they felt they were due.

Some of this was down to the repayment of PFA loans which had been made available during the club’s administration. Communication between the men brokering the takeover and those still trying to maintain the image of a working football club was said to be limited and the relationship was strained. 

For a few hours on the Friday the team coach remained parked at the front of the stadium while players paced the Whites Hotel seeking some clarity about their pay. They boarded the bus eventually, and without their centre-forward, but levels of suspicion were sky high and had the players been told Winter Hill was green, they would have walked outside to check.

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The pay palaver had been the final straw for Magennis, the only player in the squad who had actually been signed for cash under the reign of former owner, Ken Anderson. The Northern Irishman marched out of the training ground that morning in utter despair, triggering a fair-sized bust-up with Parkinson and his backroom staff.

Parkinson’s first game in charge of Bolton had been a 1-0 victory against Sheffield United three years earlier. On the eve of that game he had sat in his office at Lostock staring at a tactics board with Plan A and Plan B – one team containing his entire summer’s worth of signings, and the other with none.

This was one step further. And as the team went for a ‘relaxing’ walk around the hotel grounds on the morning of the Wycombe game – passing the window of a Costa Coffee where this bemused reporter recognised only half of the faces in Bolton kit – you got a glimpse of just how chaotic life had become.

Brittan managed to smooth over the players’ concerns and though Hobbs was told to wait, the EFL gave permission for Weir, Brockbank and Earl to figure at Adams Park among the eight debuts handed out.

Tickets for the game at Adams Park had gone on sale, then been withdrawn, as Wycombe wondered what the hell they were getting into. Among the impressive 1,600 who did take their place was Vernon Kay – and indeed Brittan, whose attempts to enter the building were interrupted by the soon-to-be-immortal question: “As it been done?”

Spooner and the reserves made it in time. Not all of them made the matchday squad in the end - but given what happened just 10 minutes into the game, it is a good job they made the effort.

A ball over the top found Wycombe’s Paul Smyth offside. But a new rule meant the attacker had to touch the ball for the referee’s assistant to flag – which meant full-back Earl had to do likewise. A 15-yard sprint later, the Preston man turned him ankle and could play no further part.

Assistant manager Steve Parkin turned to the seats behind the dugout and shrugged his shoulders.

“Steve was waving at me and Gav McCann, mouthing the words ‘Boon or White?’” laughed Spooner.

“He knew the lads but didn’t know that much about them – so we shouted back ‘put Joe on’ and he went for it.”

White let nobody down. Wycombe went on to have a hugely successful season and few in League One would deny them at least a shot at promotion, whatever happens in the future. But the untested left-back gave just as good as he got for 76 minutes.

“Joe took us all by surprise that day,” Spooner agreed. “But I think he and a few of the younger lads had gone into those games thinking ‘it’ll all be done soon’ so they didn’t really have time for nerves.

“He was outstanding and when you look at how well Wycombe have done this season it is even more of a feather in their cap, I think.”

White was not alone. The 18-year-old Eddie Brown had made only a handful of appearances for the Under-23s by that stage but in Magennis’s absence he was asked to hassle experienced due Anthony Stewart and Adam El Abd. At centre-back the young Frenchman Yoan Zouma also had an eye-catching debut trying to keep man-mountain Adebayo Akinfenwa in check.

Those fresh faces would become more familiar in the weeks to come. Indeed, the following weekend there would not be a senior player to be seen when Bolton took the field to face Coventry City.

The takeover was not completed for another 25 days, during which time another five games were played in league and cup and the club’s very existence hung in the balance.

Tomorrow, find out the behind-the-scenes story of how the Junior Whites went from the euphoria of grabbing a point against promotion contenders Coventry to a string of results which would leave players in tears, and the club considering the boycott of a game against Doncaster Rovers.

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