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Bolton Wanderers’ survival bid: Possible, improbable, or impossible?

By Oliver Walker | December 20, 2019 | Championship

It seems weird to discuss this midway through December, but it’s time to check in on a team where the dust kicked up in the summer has only just settled.

Where have they come from?

Alright, a bit of dust being kicked up is an understatement. Bolton Wanderers very nearly ceased to exist. Years of declining performance on and off the field and failure by those in charge to get the house in order caught up with them. It took a takeover completed at the eleventh hour to keep them operating as a business.

It truly was the eleventh hour. The season had already kicked off with Bolton having not signed a single player, forced into fielding a team largely made up of players from the development and U18 squads just to field a squad whilst the takeover went through. They played five fixtures under these conditions, losing four by an aggregate score of 0–17, but somehow clinging onto a 0–0 draw against Coventry to claim a point in their second match of the season, under highly unlikely circumstances.

All this and . . .  Bolton started the season with a 12-point deduction for going into administration whilst the takeover was in process. That unexpected draw with Coventry took them to -11 points, and begun the long road toward a positive tally. It helped that on August 28th the takeover finally went through and they could sign a few senior professionals for the season. Five games in, but better late than never.

Meanwhile, manager Phil Parkinson resigned, understandably exhausted by months of constant pressure and uncertainty around the club's future, whist seldom receiving his salary on time (if at all) for his troubles.

Where are they now?

With Bolton's season effectively starting from scratch five fixtures in, fighting a points deduction and a terrible goal difference, new manager Keith Hill set about leading a squad newly assembled and without a proper pre-season behind them on their quest to achieve the improbable.

Scriptwriters everywhere were incredulous as they took the lead four minutes into the squad's first ‘proper’ fixture away at Rotherham. Bolton scored their first goal of the campaign, but on this occasion that was as good as it got.

A bit of a downpour on the parade, but Hill was magnanimous, “It will take time but this is just a step on a journey. One thing I do know is that Bolton Wanderers will be great again.”

It took just three days to climb another step. A 0–0 draw at home to Oxford the following Tuesday set the tone. Another point chalked off towards a positive points tally.

That Saturday saw them move yet closer. Another 0–0 draw, this one at home to Sunderland. Progress slowed slightly as fixtures against Portsmouth, Blackpool and Rochdale yielded just a solitary point.

But then…

The scenes in the away end as the final whistle went were described as ‘thunderous’. Seven months since their last league win. Three months since they’d nearly ceased to exist. 22nd October. Bristol Rovers 0–2 Bolton Wanderers. The wheels on the great escape were well and truly in motion. Points tally: -5.

That first win lit the touch paper. The remaining deficit was wiped out within the next two matches as victories over Fleetwood and Milton Keynes saw them hit the milestone that had been objective number one since Hill had taken charge.

Clearly the footballing gods decided this was all becoming a bit too much of a fairytale. We all know and love (what do you mean you don’t?) the sacred cliché, 'goals change games'. We all know that red cards change games too. As Bolton went 1–0 up away at Accrington on the back of their three-game winning streak, the omnipotent soccer powers above us decided that a penalty to Accrington and a red card to defender Josh Earl for the offending incident were just recourse to keep fans' feet planted firmly on the ground. They might’ve gone a bit far with the resultant 7–1 hammering, mind.

The 95th-minute equaliser at home to AFC Wimbledon restored spirit and belief to keep Bolton’s unlikely mission on track before they became the latest victim to succumb to Peterborough and Ivan Toney last weekend.

Where do they need to go?

Bolton find themselves still bottom of the table, 15 points from safety and just 27 league games remaining. Keith Hill has undeniably done a sterling job just laying the foundation on which Bolton could possibly survive, and has shown that Bolton are far from the worst side in the division. Were this a normal season with a level playing field from the start, it’s highly unlikely they’d even be involved in the relegation picture.

Looking at what this all might mean for the future, a benchmark of their current standard can be seen upon reviewing their performance trendlines since the start of the season.

The blue marker shows both when Keith Hill was appointed and when Bolton started fielding senior players. Their league record since that moment is W3 D4 L5 from 12 games, a rate of 1.08 points per game. There are always caveats, but a simplistic projection of that rate over the remainder of the season would leave Bolton on 31 points, well short of the required total to survive.

Now to colour it with the necessary context. Bolton have essentially and necessarily been running a pre-season regime during this period, playing against opposition with the privilege of correctly implemented strength and conditioning programmes, able to not only fully recover game-to-game but also play at the peak of their powers. There’s scope to suggest that Bolton should get better as the season wears on and their fitness levels match those of their opponents. It's likely there'll be another minor reshuffling of the pack and the arrival of new faces in January to further mould the side in Hill’s image. This should leave Bolton more competitive and able to pick up points at a higher rate.

The major issue remains the mountain that they have to scale. For all the good work that’s been done to get them to a competitive level, that height might be too much. Essentially starting the season from scratch with just two points, they have to pick up more points in a half-season than their relegation rivals will in the full season. The clever clogs at the spread firms suggest the points total needed to survive could end up being as high as 50. That leaves Bolton needing to pick up points at the rate of a play-off standard team for the remainder of the season, which would require yet another large leap forward in their levels of performance. To put it one way, Bolton could win their next eight matches on the spin and would still need to pick up points from then onwards at around the same 1.08ppg rate they’ve managed so far under Hill.

To focus in too closely on that would be to lose sight of the bigger picture. No matter what division the club competes in next season, the slate will be wiped clean, the team will start the season with a neutral points tally, hell, they’ll even get a proper pre-season under their belts. There’ll be no fretting over whether or not the season tickets fans purchased will actually manifest into a team to watch on the pitch. This season should’ve been a complete write-off, yet while Bolton’s great escape still isn’t probable, it’s certainly not impossible. And that's an unlikely victory on its own.

Article by Oliver Walker