With the short-lived European Super League still fresh in the thoughts of apathetic supporters at Old Trafford and beyond, one wonders whether Bolton Wanderers may have won a few more hearts of late. “Hopefully, because I don’t think they’ll be disappointed,” says Ian Evatt, the League Two club’s manager. “That is one of my goals: to stop people in Bolton wearing Manchester United kits. I want the young kids and future fans to be wearing our shirts, not Man United’s. If we can do things right on and off the pitch with this club, hopefully, we will capture some new fans and build our fanbase.”
In 2008, after giving Atlético Madrid a bloody nose to reach the last 16 of the Uefa Cup, Bolton were 47th in the European rankings, above Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and Borussia Dortmund. But since dropping out of the Premier League in 2012 disaster has never been far from their door and, two years ago, an emergency food bank was set up to support unpaid staff after the club entered administration. A 12-point deduction, relegation and more strife followed but they finally appear poised to reverse the direction of travel.
On Saturday they will return to League One at the first attempt if they beat play-off chasing Exeter. “This club has been through 10 years of decline and was used to losing matches for far too long,” Evatt says. “Yes, we have come from nowhere and we’re on the cusp of promotion but the way we have reconnected with the community and the town, and all of the fans are proud once again, is something I’m most happy about.”
Before leaving Morecambe with three points last Saturday, Evatt led his players to a mound outside the stadium, where they applauded a crowd of about 200 supporters singing their names. Bolton are a big fish in the fourth tier and even though Evatt is yet to oversee a game watched by the supporters owing to the pandemic, the weight of expectation has never felt too far away, with his next-door neighbour in Chesterfield a Bolton fanatic. “He bobs by when results are good and tends to avoid me when they’re not, so I didn’t see him for the first half of the season,” Evatt laughs.
On the face of it, Bolton are sitting pretty, promotion within touching distance. However they fell to 22nd, the lowest position in their 147-year history, after starting with three defeats to nil and languished in 20th as recently as February, when an unthinkable third straight relegation was not out of the question.
A run of 14 wins from their last 18 games has taken them third and they have the title in their sights. Evatt says: “Because of the size of the club, we have a huge target on our backs and that has been difficult this season because opponents raise their game. At times it probably benefited us not to have the fans because it gave us time to get our act together.”
So, what changed? Evatt assumed control of recruitment in December, when his title shifted from head coach to manager following the departure of the head of football operations, Tobias Phoenix. Oladapo Afolayan, Kieran Lee and Michael Jordan Williams have impressed since joining the striker Eoin Doyle (the first player to score more than a dozen goals in a season for Bolton since Michael Ricketts in 2001), the captain Antoni Sarcevic and the defender Ricardo Santos, three of 20 arrivals last summer. The 38-year-old goalkeeping coach Matt Gilks, who played with Evatt for Blackpool in the Premier League, has been ever-present since resuming playing duties in November. “We had to recruit a brand-new squad. It was going to take time. It is a big ship to turn around.”
Evatt is carving out quite the reputation as a manager. He guided Barrow into the Football League last year with an expansive style and has transformed Bolton. The 39-year-old former defender enjoys reading about mindset and leadership (he lists Relentless, by Michael Jordan’s former personal trainer, as one of his favourite books), studies coaches such as Pep Guardiola and uses his contacts, including the Leeds captain Liam Cooper, to improve. “He shares a lot with me about Bielsa and what Bielsa does,” he says.
Bolton, inspired by Bielsa, do a version of the Argentinian’s infamous “Murderball”, an 11-v-11 training exercise where the ball is always in play. “The lads appreciate it because they know as hard and as tough as it is, it makes you improve. It makes you fitter, stronger. There are no stops, there are no free-kicks, no set pieces. We do three blocks of however many minutes we feel is necessary for their fitness levels. It could be 10 minutes, it could be 15 minutes, but it is very intense. We have ‘servers’ all around the pitch so as soon as the ball goes out of play, one of them puts the ball straight back in.”
Bolton hope getting over the line will not be quite so gruelling. “Our goal all season has been to get promoted and now we have a wonderful opportunity,” says Evatt. “Hopefully when fans are back in stadiums again, we’re back in League One, pushing towards the Championship, where I believe we, at least, should be.”