• Adam Stubbings

Bolton Fiasco: Rovers dragged in to latest twist in sorry tale

A couple of hours from now, Rovers should be taking the field for their fourth league game of the season. Fresh off the back of a last-minute victory over Fleetwood on Saturday, Darren Moore was all set to take his side to the University of Bolton Stadium to face one of League One’s two crisis clubs, Bolton Wanderers. Unfortunately, minutes after Moore finished his pre-match press duties yesterday afternoon, the administrators currently in control of the troubled Lancashire club announced that they were cancelling the game as their off-field issues continue to envelop the club.

The ongoing issues surrounding Bolton are very well documented in the national media now, with the club in the hands of administrators currently trying to push through a sale to the Football Ventures group, after previous owner Ken Anderson had the club taken out of his hands amidst severe financial shortfalls that cost them their place in the Championship last season and have, as a result of being placed in administration during the close season, seen them start in League One on -12 points this term, along with similarly cash-strapped Lancashire side Bury.

Football fans up and down the country have plenty of sympathy for the affected players, staff and fans of Bolton Wanderers and it is disastrous that we are edging ever closer to the complete collapse of two of British football’s longest tenured and most historic clubs. Bolton are founder members of the Football League, whilst Bury have also been a league club since the 19th century and both clubs share six F.A. Cup triumphs between them in the 1900s. However, the longer this sorry situation drags on for both clubs the worse a problem it is not just for them, but for the entirety of League One and indeed British football on the whole.

Taking matters into their own hands

Rumours had been swirling for several days in Bolton fans circles about the prospect of them seeking to postpone our game but having had a request to suspend Saturday’s fixture at Tranmere denied by the EFL, tonight’s contest seemed set to go ahead. Then, out of the blue yesterday afternoon, joint administrator Paul Appleton put out a statement on the Bolton Wanderers website explaining that he had been “forced to postpone” the game citing the welfare of their young playing squad.

Herein lies the problem though: neither Appleton nor anyone else associated with Bolton Wanderers thought to inform anybody at Doncaster Rovers or the EFL about this decision, they merely put this statement out and waited for everyone else to read it. Compounding matters, clubs do not possess the autonomy to cancel their own games for any reason, they must make a request and have the legitimacy of that request judged by the governing body which sanctions league matches. This is something that John Ryan tried when chairman of Rovers eight years ago, but he was met with short shrift from the powers that be and our game with Norwich went ahead despite our protests.

Whilst the situation for Bolton – down to a handful of senior players and forced to blood development squad prospects in their opening matches – is one of exceptional difficulty, the reality is that they are able to field a team of 11 players and thus have no reason, according to the regulations, to get the game postponed. This is the reason they didn’t consult the EFL before postponing the game themselves, because they knew their plea would not be granted. What they have done instead is open a can of worms which could now run for weeks and only adds to the mounting problems the club faces as it fights to stay in business.

In attempting to force the hand of their prospective new owners into agreeing a sale, and to highlight the plight they face to the EFL, Bolton’s administrators have caused the club to act in a highly unprofessional manner and by electing not to contact Gavin Baldwin and Doncaster Rovers before unilaterally deciding to call off the match, they have caused great frustration amongst fans and neutral observers alike. Fans have now lost money spent on travel fare for a game they were assured was taking place and risked setting a dangerous precedent if they are not punished accordingly in sporting terms for their decision not to play the game.

Postponement or Forfeiture?

The EFL regulations on postponing fixtures exists for a reason. If a club can decide for itself that it is incapable of completing a fixture for any reason that it deems justified, then what is to stop clubs in future from refusing to play because they just don’t think they can win? A club can cite an injury list, something of which the facts can be exaggerated, or perhaps just adverse form, as a reason not to play and seek to instead play that game at a time for convenient for themselves. This is why the league is tasked with arranging fixtures and dealing with postponements and re-arrangement of fixtures when inclement weather of competition clashes occur, as they do every season.

Bolton’s statement gave the reason that “nothing can be allowed to impact on the welfare of such a young group of players” and that “to call on them for another match without an adequate break would be detrimental to both their welfare and development which cannot be allowed”. A reasonable argument undoubtedly, one that manager Phil Parkinson made to the EFL prior to the 5-0 defeat at Tranmere, but one that simply doesn’t hold up in reality. Less than half of Bolton’s team on Saturday were under 20, and whilst several of these are youth team players aged as young as 17, there are enough senior players available to fulfil a league fixture.

Simply put, if causing detriment to a young player’s development is enough of an excuse not to play a game, then any club in the country could exercise it going forward, unless Bolton are sanctioned for this failure to host the game. When Bolton’s first team went on strike and refused to play the side’s final game of last season, opponents Brentford were ultimately awarded a 1-0 forfeit victory and the three points. This was perhaps swiftly resolved purely because it was the last game of the season and, with Bolton already relegated and Brentford sat in lower mid-table, handing Brentford the points had no effect on the outcome of the season, whereas this has occurred only a handful of matches into the new campaign.

It is reasonable to say that there will be time to have this fixture played later in the year, but is that fair now on Doncaster? Will it remain simple enough to do if Bolton again refuse to play subsequent matches, such as this weekend’s fixture with Ipswich? Bury are already four games down and counting, so in the event they are saved from oblivion and can continue this season, fixture congestion is already going to be an issue down the line. What if the game is rearranged for a time when Rovers themselves have many fixtures in a short space of time? Could we then cite player welfare as an excuse ourselves, and seek another postponement until the schedule is more convenient for us?

Nobody really expects that to be the case, but if Bolton are not given a sporting sanction by the EFL for refusing to play this game without permission from either ourselves or the governing body, then any club could take liberties in future whether they are in the precarious financial position Bolton find themselves in or not. Additionally, maintaining a fair playing field is now out the window because the EFL allowed Bolton to start the season without a senior playing squad and so Wycombe, Coventry and Tranmere have played against a development squad whereas anyone that plays them after any takeover will likely be playing a stronger senior side.

The Bottom Line

Bolton Wanderers find themselves on the brink of complete collapse if they are unable to sort their takeover, and this is a far bigger concern than one fixture. The unique difficulty of their situation cannot be ignored in all of this, even though Doncaster Rovers fans and staff have every right to be displeased with the manner in which this postponement has been handled. Any fans calling for them to be expelled from the league over it should remember the similar plight our club found itself in in 1997/98, when a team of pub team players and young kids were forced to fulfil all 46 of our fixtures in the old Division 3, finishing rock bottom and suffering humiliation week after week in the process.

If that event some 20 odd years ago serves as a decent precedent enough that Bolton should have been made to play this game tonight, it also highlights the stark reality of why any club finds itself in this position at all. It is down primarily to incompetent, even malicious, stewardship by those in charge, and is exacerbated by a remarkable lack of willingness from the governing body, be it the EFL or the FA, to actively step in and ensure such crises are not allowed to develop. Bolton Wanderers were a Premier League only seven years ago, yet now find themselves unable to put a team together and could in a matter of weeks cease to exist at all.

This shouldn’t be happening to Bolton, or to Bury or anyone else. The fact it continues to drag on and affect more clubs and more fans over a long period of time is simply unconscionable and an end to clubs’ suffering financial oblivion, during a time where the sport on the whole has never been richer, has to come out of all of this now.


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