LIFE on the road with Wanderers during 2021 has been a lonely old experience.

Normally, my post-Christmas travel-log is jam-packed with post-match pints, dodgy pre-match meals and perilous press boxes in the hope it will give our readers a little insight into what life is like on my side of the fence.

For the first half of this year, however, I was pretty much out there alone, pre-packed sandwich and flask of tea in hand.

With football locked behind closed doors, promotion from League Two was a sterile and soulless experience, even though there were moments of warmth which managed to shine through in the end.

Social distancing was in full flow and with many press boxes out of bounds, I often viewed games from the empty stands, perching a laptop on my knee and praying my battery was strong enough to last the distance.

Post-game interviews were done at arm’s length, questions posed from behind masks, hours spent waiting outside stadia waiting for staff to open the doors.

My year on the road began in a galaxy far, far away, also known as Exeter.

The city’s steep hills, cobbled centre and big student population must make it a vibrant place to be in the warmer months but, alas, a sodden midweek evening in January did not show it in the same light.

Trudging up to St James Park from my empty hotel, I had to remind myself at regular intervals that there were Wanderers fans who would kill to be in my soaking wet shoes.

One of the consequences of lockdown football was that clubs no longer needed as many matchday staff. Normal entrances into grounds were locked, access restricted, and as I circled the stadium for the 11th time, now soaked to the bone, I longed to see the friendly face of a steward to point me in the right direction.

Thankfully, I bumped into a colleague – John McDougall from the Manchester Evening News – who had discovered a clue hidden deep in all the Covid protocols which revealed the location of a secret entrance for press. I was soon sat in a nice dry stand chomping on a Yorkie, which had kindly been provided by the friendly press team.

Wanderers got a draw that night against a good side and, looking back, I still think that was a turning point, despite the league table making such grim viewing at the time.

I managed to dodge a trip to Prenton Park in late January so I could move house, itself quite a feat in lockdown (side-stepping that pesky Stamp Duty too, am I right?).

My next destination would be Mansfield, a town with which I became depressingly familiar over the coming days and weeks.

The first attempt to play the game was frozen off, an announcement made at 1.30pm on the same afternoon, so no complaint there. The second, however, was a meteorological mess-up of Michael Fish proportions.

I had booked a hotel in Nottingham, fearing the some of the options I had in Mansfield boasted bed or breakfast. Long before I arrived, the incessant rain made it pretty clear a ball was not going to get kicked.

Nevertheless, we went through the whole charade. Wanderers’ players stood, arms folded, at the mouth of the tunnel while ground-staff wrestled with a layer of white plastic, eventually joined by a tractor.

Ninety minutes before kick-off the referee confirmed what we all knew. Thankfully, fans had not made the trip but for yours truly, it was back out into the rain to rattle out stories to fill those empty column inches on a grim night which ended with a particularly desolate wait for a JustEat delivery driver and a cold chicken chow mein.

Bolton did get to play, of course, coming back from two down to beat Nigel Clough’s side 3-2 on an absolute pudding of a pitch and tempt a response even saltier than the bang average Chinese takeaway I bought later that night.

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From there on in, Wanderers looked a different team. Boasting the class of Kieran Lee, the mettle of MJ Williams and the pace offered by Declan John and Dapo Afolayan, this was a side that looked capable of a late dash for the line.

In a marked departure, sun-kissed Southend was a pleasure. Fish and chips, a temporary press box housed in a hospitality room carpeted with Astro Turf and a late winner from Shaun Miller which prompted scenes of such wild celebration from the Bolton press team that Paul Holliday two-footed their only tripod.

Tuesday night in Oldham was as glamorous as it sounds. There are bigger issues to solve at Boundary Park – so our own, caused largely by an over-officious steward are small beer – but somehow the club desperately needs to get back to the friendly place it used to be.

Bradford could teach most lower league clubs a lesson in the way they run their press box, and though Danny Rowe spoiled the day with a 90th minute equaliser, Valley Parade was again a pleasure. Likewise Port Vale, who bucked the trend in most lockdown grounds by offering a nice warm cuppa and some biscuits – ever the way to my heart.

By the time Wanderers headed to my home county, Gloucestershire, for a TV game at Forest Green, they were really motoring. It was a shame the Covid restrictions meant Bolton fans couldn’t tick the smart little ground off their list but some still managed to watch on from the big hill at the back as Eoin Doyle secured an impressive win.

Ciders purchased from the eco-friendly services on the M5, it was back home to celebrate a result that really underlined the Whites’ promotion credentials.

Up to that point, I had not been joined on away trips by my usual travelling partner, Mr Jack Dearden, who had been commentating on games from the BBC’s studios back in Salford. He certainly returned with a bang at Newport – costing me a chunk of fingernail and a Sunday morning in A&E.

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The game at Rodney Parade was not a classic but the press box at least had some quality banter once Nathan Blake turned up to do co-commentary.

We were all quite tightly packed, which meant that once the final whistle sounded and Jack decided he had to nip for a pee before we did the post-match interviews, he had to climb over both of us, which is easier said than done at his age.

I got tangled in the wires and in an effort not to land on John, sat beside me, managed to trap my index finger in some metalwork.

Jack bought me some compensatory beers for the train journey home to distract me from the pain. The following day an x-ray at Leigh Infirmary confirmed I’d cracked the bone, which made writing back a 1-0 defeat all the more painful.

Next up were promotion rivals Salford, a club I’d covered in the North West Counties League in the days when Rhodri Giggs was the main attraction at Moor Lane and not his brother’s mates.

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The first attempt to play the game had been called off thanks to a strange 10-yard-square patch of bog near to the halfway line. If you have seen Return of the Jedi, imagine trying to bounce a football off the Sarlacc Pit.

This time, Lloyd Isgrove secured three vital points in a tense match. In the press box, the stress was even higher as we battled for non-existent phone signals to try and convey to the public what was happening.

Considering Salford’s ambition and wealth, the fact they have no wi-fi in the press box seems a little incongruous.

The next trip to Grimsby would be the first time I arrived at a ground to see a smattering of Bolton fans waiting outside. Just a few had made the trip to Blundell Park, but the mini crowd was a sign of things to come as the promotion race came to an exciting conclusion.

Covering football in lockdown had been a rather lonely experience, so the sight of any number of people gathered together was a startling one. Imagine my surprise, then, when I popped into the nearby McDonalds for a coffee to be greeted by a cast of hundreds queuing for food.

I don’t want to cast dispersions on the local diet in Lincolnshire but surely the demand for a Sausage McMuffin can’t be that high?

Defeat at Grimsby put pressure on a result at Morecambe. This time, dozens of Bolton fans had gathered outside the entrance to the Mazuma Stadium by the time I drove into the car park, with many more exploring the newly re-opened pub gardens nearby.

Ben Jackson scored the crucial goal, of course, which might well go down as the most famous of the season. And the footage of celebrating supporters being saluted by Ian Evatt and his team afterwards (from a social distance, of course) will be just as fondly remembered.

There was only one trip left and after the team – and some fans – let themselves down against Exeter City in the penultimate weekend, it was all down to Crawley.

Part two of Marc Iles’s away days travel-log will be printed in The Bolton News tomorrow, including the promotion in Sussex, the return of fans and a return to League One luxuries.

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