Wandering freefall

Time to panic? Helen Duff certainly seems to think so as she watches her Bolton side plummet down the table

Throughout Bolton’s miserable New Year’s Day match against West Bromwich Albion, a fan’s banner begged for “bouncebackability”. Con­sidering that we were at home, playing the bottom club in the league and were eight points above the relegation zone, this should have seemed premature in its desperation.

In slightly different circumstances, the banner’s owner might have been scorned for wasting Hogmanay defacing his bedsheets with hysterical pleadings, but by now restraint was following the example of confidence, style and self-respect, and rapidly fleeing the Reebok.

Six defeats on the trot had seen us embarking on the kind of sudden, rapid, graceless plummet favoured by shot pig­eons – yet before that run we had been enjoying a sea­­son that seemed to vindicate our decade-long struggle for a secure footing in the Prem­iership.

Starting with a first day tonking of Charlton, we had notched up victories against Liverpool, Totten­ham and Newcastle, and draws against Arsenal, Chelsea and Man Untd. Pun­dits pre­viously mis­­e­rly in their praise of Bol­ton now pub­licly fancied our chances, and it even became possible to switch on Match of the Day before five to midnight and actually see us in action.

Sam Allardyce may not yet have been banking on European qualification, but he had probably nipped into Boots in his lunch hour to get new passport photos. With success, his stock had risen – bearing out, or so it seemed, his ability to milk not just survival but panache from his thriftily assembled squad of overseas veterans and rejuvenated rejects. When we faced Everton on December 4, it was billed as the battle of the surprise overachievers. Forget Abramovich’s gold; this was alchemy.

So what, so quickly, went wrong? Well, for one thing, of course, precedent should have alerted us to the dangers of being taken seriously by the media. The last time the TV talking heads had anything truly positive to say about Bolton, it was to the effect that our then striker Michael Rick­etts deserved an England call-up – something he duly received and which must now seem as much of a crazed, im­probable dream to the pundits who petitioned for it as it does to Sven-Göran Eriksson, the nation and Ricketts himself. Knowing the kiss of death when we hear it, Bolton supporters rested easier in the days when Mark Law­renson was staking his moustache on us going down, than when his smooth-lipped later self started bigging us up.

More practically, it’s been hard – watching the matches we’ve lost – to pinpoint any one consistent failing. Bolton have been infuriatingly listless, but also in­- effectually industrious. It would doubtless please those who see something contemptible in Allardyce’s use of “overseas mercenaries” if blame lay solely with them, but for every languid foreigner there’s been an indigenous player as poor and our longest-serv­ing per­formers have been as quick to slip from form. Fernando Hierro may have been depressingly uncommitted in our defeat at Carrow Road, but when West Brom took the inevitable lead on January 1, it was the previously unimpeachable Ricardo Gardner who stood off the attacker, looked around for his mummy and failed us.

Having salvaged a point from Albion, and even managed to edge Birmingham in the dying seconds of the following match, Wan­derers can perhaps now view their slump as just a brief slip of confidence – comeuppance for earlier complacency, perhaps, or shock at no longer being the underdog. The alternative – that the problem is more structural – is disheartening not just for those of us whose mental health is bound up with Bolton’s fortunes, but for anyone who would still like to believe that relatively cash-strapped teams can prosper in the Premier.

It would be depressing to have to admit that there was an element of gravity defiance in our previous good form, or – to put it another way – that Allardyce’s shoestring success was just temporary trickery: plate-spinning. We’ll have to wait and see whether our winter wob­ble is the prelude to a fall, but the one thing already learnt is that Wanderers find it very hard to cope with expectations – be they that we’ll qualify for the UEFA Cup, or just that we’ll retain enough composure under pres­-sure to keep our fans from having to scribble on their bedsheets.

From WSC 216 February 2005. What was happening this month