Think back to the opening day of this enthralling Barclays Premier League season. At the close of play, Bolton Wanderers were top of the table. A resounding 4-0 win at newly promoted Queens Park Rangers on August 13 got their campaign off to a flying start. Gary Cahill scored, so too did Ivan Klasnic and Fabrice Muamba. For fans of Bolton that result seems like an awful long time ago.
Far from being a harbinger of good things to come — they managed to take nine points from their first 16 games and have been playing catch up ever since — it was a false dawn and offers a timely reminder that the Premier League is a marathon, not a sprint.
And yet, these past nine months might come to be remembered at Bolton for what happened in one single minute.
Last Sunday, their supporters were singing “staying up.” Bolton were 2-1 to the good against a West Brom side which had nothing to play for; perhaps maybe the pride of their manager Roy Hodgson, who is departing to take the England job. Fellow strugglers QPR, meanwhile, were being held to a stalemate by Stoke City. If the scores remained the same, Bolton would go into the final day with a two-point cushion over the relegation zone.
Instead, that hope vanished in 60 seconds. West Brom equalized through James Morrison, and QPR got a winner from Djibril Cissé in the 90th minute. Both goals went in almost simultaneously and dramatically transformed the battle near the bottom. Bolton fell to 18th and QPR rose to 17th in the Premier League.
The sudden turn of events brought with it the stunned disbelief at the Reebok and a sense of renewed optimism at Loftus Road. Now it all comes down to Survival Sunday. All Bolton can do now is win at Stoke and hope that Manchester City do them a favor by inflicting defeat on QPR. “That’s the only way our situation is going to change,” said manager Owen Coyle. Otherwise, Bolton might be the victim of a piece of Premier League history repeating itself.
Only once before have all three newly promoted sides avoided relegation. That was the 2001-02 season when Fulham, Blackburn and Bolton all managed to avoid going straight back down to the Championship. This no longer has to be an isolated incident. Norwich City and Swansea have already retained their Premier League status. Now it’s up to QPR to do the same.
But given that this is such a statistical rarity in the Premier League’s 20-year history, it begs the question how has it come to this for a club like Bolton, who, after yo-yoing between the first and second tiers between 1995 and 2001, really established themselves in the top-flight over the last decade?
Debts of up to £110.6m declared in their most recent set of accounts reveal an apparent Catch-22 in that Bolton could neither spend the substantial amounts of money perhaps necessary to keep the team in the Premier League, nor can they afford to go down.
While insisting he has not been under pressure to sell, Coyle must have been reluctant to see last season’s top scorer Johan Elmander leave for Galatasaray on a free transfer in the summer. His replacement, David Ngog, the £4m signing from Liverpool, has found the net on just four occasions, which works out at £1m for every goal, hardly a cost-effective strike-rate.
Given the fact Ivan Klasnic still heads the club’s scoring charts despite rarely starting after adding only one to his total of eight since the turn of the year, there’s a sense that Bolton can still rely on captain Kevin Davies to intimidate opposition defenses. It’s not just the departure of Elmander that has blunted their attack, but the absence too of Daniel Sturridge, who made a real impact on loan from Chelsea in the second half of last season.
Still, it also bears remembering that eight other Premier League teams have scored fewer goals than Bolton. That would appear to indicate that their problems lie at the other end of the pitch. Coyle was crestfallen after seeing his team concede late against West Brom on Saturday.
“There’s no getting away from how disappointing it was to draw a game we were well placed to win,” he sighed. “I accept West Brom were always dangerous, but we should have seen the game out.”
Bolton’s inability to do so explains why they are where they are today. Their defensive line has fared poorly all season. Star defender Gary Cahill’s £7.3 million move to Chelsea in the January transfer window did little to help its cause, even though he hadn’t exactly performed well in the first half of the season.
It was perhaps unrealistic to expect his replacement, the United States international Tim Ream, to be a cure-all considering he had so little time to adjust to a new league mid-way through the season and the club’s difficult circumstances.
Then of course, there’s the grave misfortune that has struck Bolton throughout the current campaign: the leg break suffered by fullback Tyrone Mears in pre-season and the relapse of Ream’s compatriot and the club’s 2011 Player of the Year, Stuart Holden.
Above all, no one will ever forget the collapse of Muamba during an FA Cup tie against Tottenham in March. It’s a miracle the midfielder is still alive after his cardiac arrest and remains hard to comprehend what effect that incident had on the Bolton dressing room.
On the one hand, it might have galvanized the team to ‘do it for Muamba.’ On the other, it could equally have brought things into perspective and served as a reality-check that there are more important things in life than football.
Even so, commitment to the cause shouldn’t be in any doubt. Bolton still have a chance even though their bad luck struck again on Sunday when center back David Wheater tore his knee ligaments and influential winger Martin Petrov hobbled off too.
Solace is to be found in their away form. They’ve won more games on their travels than they have at home this season. With that in mind, depending on QPR’s result at Man City, Bolton’s trip to Stoke is akin to encountering a crossroads. The question is which direction will they take: the long walk to Premier League freedom or the road to even harder times in the Championship?