MATT Mills had concerns over the direction Wanderers were heading just 24 hours after he had turned down Celtic to sign for the club.

Back in the summer of 2012, Owen Coyle’s Bolton had forked out a reported £2.25million to bring him from Leicester City as a key component of a team which wanted to bounce back to the Premier League at the first time of asking.

Big investments had also been made to land Benik Afobe from Arsenal on loan, plus the experience of Andy Lonergan from Leeds and Keith Andrews from West Brom – who were soon to be followed by Liverpool’s Jay Spearing and Aston Villa’s Stephen Warnock.

After relegation, Wanderers carried a whopping £37.4million wage bill into the Championship, recording then-record losses of more than £50m.

But no sooner had he agreed to sign for Bolton, Mills sensed the future was not as bright as it was being made out to be. Twelve players – among them Gretar Steinsson, Paul Robinson, Ricardo Gardner, Ivan Klasnic and Nigel Reo-Coker were released, and the first murmurings began to emerge that Eddie Davies was to begin withdrawing his financial support as he looked to sell the club.

The great gamble to retain such a high playing budget nearly paid off – the Whites missing out on the play-offs by a single goal, ironically to Mills’ former club, Leicester, who were destined for their own Cinderella story in the following few years.

For Bolton, and Mills, however, the fairy-tale would be more Grimm.

“The day after I’d signed the club released 12 players, which was a bit of a shock, and then after the first season the owner started to step away,” Mills recalled. “That’s when we knew we were in trouble and it’s spiralled from there.

“I had fallen out of favour for one reason or another at Leicester and found myself back on the market and was close to doing something with Celtic for about the fourth transfer window running. Funnily enough, that was with Neil Lennon, who eventually came to Bolton.

“I felt Bolton was the right move. They’d just come down from the Premier League, had aspirations to go back up, it was north-west where I was comfortable having spent some time at Manchester City, but when I got there I quickly started to realise the situation wasn’t quite going to play out how it was sold to me.

“The players we brought in, the loans, I think the squad was decent and we only missed out on goal difference on the last day.

“We were more than capable of getting in the play-offs. We were unfortunate.”

Mills’ first season would be decimated by a hamstring tear at the end of 2012, after which he struggled to usurp Tim Ream and loanee Craig Dawson in the plans of new boss Dougie Freedman.

After missing out on promotion, Bolton’s economy shifted once again. And Mills felt he was being pushed out of the club.

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“It was made clear to me that the club were looking to recoup money from wages,” he said.

“My understanding is that they needed to slash the wage bill come the end of the year so I think they targeted certain players’ wages that would add up to the amount they needed to save. I guess I was on that list because the two guys were playing well. You could argue why did they need me?”

Leeds United, then managed by Mills’ former Reading mentor, Brian McDermott, looked a likely destination but forced into the margins he was forced to watch Bolton endure their worst start to a season for 50 years.

His salvation did come from Leeds – but not in the way he thought.

“I came back pre-season and it was made pretty clear to me that I wasn’t wanted and that I could sign for a new club.

“When you’re in football you develop a very thick skin, it is what it is. I started to put some feelers out in terms of leaving and when I signed for Bolton there were Premier League clubs and Celtic interested.

“I was linked with Leeds for quite a number of years.

“At the start of that season I was going out on loan, or permanent, and Dougie came to me and said ‘you can’t go now, you’re playing the next game’ – and that was against Leeds.

“It was an international break and I was in Portugal at the time. I came back and went on quite a good run from there and mine and Dougie’s relationship moved on to another level where he was happy to have me around.

“I guess I didn’t look back from there, really.”

While they managed to climb clear of the relegation zone in 2013/14, Wanderers would struggle to find the consistency needed to mount a push for the top half of the table.

Freedman was coming under mounting pressure from the fans and would eventually be sacked a few months into the following season and replaced by Neil Lennon.

Mills had inherited the captain’s armband from Jay Spearing, who was loaned out to Blackburn, and found himself regularly targeted by disaffected supporters.

"It's really tough," Mills said. "Especially when, if you look at that period of time at Bolton, we'd had three managers. I'd probably played 50-60 games and be what you'd call established.

"A lot of players had come and gone and a few managers through the door, so to hold the club close to your heart and pour all your effort and energy into doing well - it's just horrendous.

"The abuse you get is not nice. There's nobody in the game who can say it doesn't phase you because it does and that's because you care.

"It wasn't nice but I understood where it was coming from and I felt the same pain in the sense that I was sold on signing for a big club with big ambition.

"No disrespect but the players we were bringing in after 2013 weren't really of a level you needed to get promoted.

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"I could see the frustration but knowing what was happening behind the scenes and just trying to focus on giving your best, ultimately it was about not letting the club drop down the league.

"It was one of the toughest seasons in my career. There were good moments along the way but it was tough."

Mills scored in a League Cup game at Chelsea for Bolton and would memorably be employed up front by Freedman’s successor Neil Lennon, in an FA Cup replay against Liverpool.

The centre-back, now player-coach at Forest Green in League Two, says he was ready to take up a new contract on lower wages at the end of the 2014/15 campaign until the offer was unceremoniously ripped out from under him.

“My agent was saying we had to look at other clubs but I said no, I was happy at Bolton. My family was settled and I had worked hard to establish myself,” he said.

“About a month before the end of the season the club offered me a contract which was less than I was on but that didn’t overly bother me.

“Then after the last game of season Neil Lennon pulled me into his office and said he’d call me on Monday.

“I said I was going on holiday – but that night they rescinded the offer and nobody from Bolton ever contacted me again.

“I found myself emotionally attached to the club, wanting to help, knowing they needed players that were Championship-capable, but also being tossed on the scrapheap.

“It would have been nice to be told that was the end instead of going into a market and looking for something.”

Mills signed for Forest – linking up with Freedman once again – before playing in India for Pune.

And though Wanderers fans viewed the Scot with little favour during the final 12 months of his tenure, Mills was happy to work with him again.

“My relationship with Dougie is strange, I guess,” he said.

“It was clear, like me, he was sold a different picture of what Bolton was going to be like when he came in, in terms of finances.

“Once he had to make cost-cuts, he targeted a few players whose wages equated what he’d been asked to cut. So he thought ‘I am going to put you with the reserves, you can leave, and the club will be financially sound the year after.’ “I came back and trained more than you have ever seen anyone train in their life. I would be first in, last to leave, I was doing double sessions, desperate to succeed – be it at Bolton or anywhere else.

“Dougie saw that and when I came in against Leeds, about six weeks later he came up to me and said: ‘The way you have handled yourself, lesser people would have broken.’ “He had a structured way of playing that some players struggle with, particularly flair forward players, but as a defender it was perfect. Black or white – you need to do this or that.

“My relationship started bad but ultimately I have only got good things to say.”

Mills was talking to Walking Down the Manny Road - a Bolton Wanderers podcast by Burnden Aces. Listen to the full podcast here.