WATCHING football at Bolton Wanderers is now a safer experience thanks to “tough decisions” taken over the last two-and-a-half years, says chief executive Neil Hart.

Recent figures from the Home Office showed that 35 Bolton supporters were arrested during home and away games last season – up on 28 the season before.

Within the stadium, however, Hart says a zero-tolerance approach to anti-social behaviour, which has included the introduction of a membership scheme for ticketing and an incident reporting hotline on matchdays, has resulted in a huge reduction in trouble.

Bolton made headlines last year when it emerged the club had the third-highest number of court-issued banning orders in the country, behind Birmingham City and Millwall.

The club also threw its full weight behind stamping out disorder and though the membership scheme was viewed dimly by some sections of the fanbase when it was brought in at the end of October 2021, it has enabled Wanderers to have a greater understanding of exactly who is coming through the turnstiles.

Hart accepts he and the club board have had to make choices that have not been popular, sacrificing a degree of popularity. But with average gates now exceeding 21,000 as a third-tier club for the first time ever and a significant increase in younger fans attending games, he feels the actions have been justified.

“I think there has been significant progress made,” he told The Bolton News. “We sit here and, to date this season, we have had no significant issues from a disorder point of view at the stadium.

“The board and I sometimes have tough decisions to make when we think about what we are doing from a strategic point of view, commercially or operationally.

“We have put those clear policies in place and there would have been no point in doing so if we didn’t stick to it.

“I sit here two-and-a-bit years on, it feels more like 20, but we can see evidence of those polices and plans serving us well.

“We have eradicated – I don’t know what else to call them – but the idiots. We have dealt with it the right way.

“We’re really pleased with the work that the safety and stadium operations team has done and the stats show there has been a clear decrease in trouble.”

Of the 35 Bolton fans arrested last season, 11 were for violent disorder, eight for public disorder, seven for possession of Class A drugs, six for pitch invasion and one each for throwing missiles, possessing an offensive weapon and alcohol-related offences.

Hart admitted the club had been ill-equipped to deal with disorder inside the stadium because of a lack of investment from previous ownership, administration and then the pandemic.

“I arrived here in July 2021 and we’d all been through Covid, not a lot of work had been done on managing disorder,” he said.

“In that first season we issued an incredible number of banning orders, we topped tables, and that is because we were dealing with issues that had not been dealt with for some time.

“We had to keep some individuals away from the stadium because they weren’t here to support Bolton Wanderers, they were here to create disorder, take part in criminal activity, and we won’t tolerate that.

“We had to tackle various things – assaults, disorder, substance abuse, people throwing missiles, people invading the pitch. And the end result has been a safer environment to watch football.

“On the whole, we are really pleased with the work we have done. We have some outliers sometimes and isolated issues, but generally we have made a lot of progress and there is a community spirit about the place. People enjoy coming to matchdays again.”

Police arrested a 25-year-old man for a racially aggravated public disorder during a recent game against Carlisle United, although The Bolton News understand he was based in the away section of the ground.

A club-issued lifetime ban was also handed out to Jack Conway, of Ramsbottom, after he entered the field of play in a game against Peterborough United.

Nationally, 2,264 football-related arrests were made, up from what was already an eight-year high of 2,198 in the previous campaign.

The number of new banning orders issued by courts also increased to their highest levels since 2010/11.