There’s a point that all addicts reach known as the moment of realisation. The point when amidst the mental fog a sudden ray of sunshine breaks through to provide clarity. Mine came a few months ago.
It was cold, it was wet and it was dark. I was sitting in my car, eating one of the few sandwiches that a nearby Greggs had left to offer at the end of the day. Perhaps worst of all, I was in Coventry. I went to roll my car forward into the space that had opened up in front of me, only to hear the dreaded whine-whine-thud of my dilapidated Ford’s battery attempting – and then failing – to start the engine.
With the prospect of a long, uncertain night stretching out in front of me, I turned to reflect on what it was that had brought me to such a wretched hive of scum and villainy. It wasn’t Bolton Wanderers, the club I’ve followed since age 10, through what I’d like to call thick and thin. I was there at landmark European moments like hosting Marseille and at several of our customary victories over Arsenal during the Sam Allardyce era. I was also there when we didn’t so much lose our nerve as drop it to the bottom of the ocean like the woman in Titanic in the FA Cup semi-final against Stoke when we got thumped 5-0. Instead, I was there for Walsall Football Club.
However, gradually I’ve found myself getting pulled into the vortex of the Bescot Stadium black hole. It started perfectly innocently. I agreed to go to games with a firmly anthropological intent; Louis Theroux casting his wry gaze across the masses in the Tile Choice stand, documenting the lives of the average Walsallite. Naturally, when they scored, I cheered; I told myself that this was purely an evolutionary survival mechanism, that not doing so would alert the pack to my alien presence and raise suspicions about my covert mission.
I was in denial. Soon, it was a quick song here, an expletive hurled at the referee there. That was about two seasons ago, and it’s escalated from there. Cursory checks of the Bolton score (or, more accurately, how heavily they were losing) became less frequent when I was at a Walsall game. The heartache of every Bolton lose gradually became more mitigated by a positive result for the Saddlers.
As fate would have it, one of the few televised Bolton games this season fell on the same day that Wanderers failed to pay their players, the first truly telling indication of the financial peril that the club found itself in. Their opponents were Brentford, who had just poached Walsall’s (relatively) long-time manager Dean Smith. Having been ensconced in a bubble of work all day I’d missed both pieces of news, and when they were delivered in tandem just before the kick-off, I wasn’t sure which bothered me more.
My feelings of guilt have only been exacerbated by Bolton’s dramatic decline in recent times. Having repeatedly punched above their weight under the brilliant guidance of Allardyce and briefly threatened to continue the trend the season after he departed by beating the mighty Atlético Madrid and reaching an FA Cup semi-final in 2011. That tie – a 5-0 defeat to a mediocre Stoke City side – provided a graphic, absolute turning point of the team’s fortunes. Relegation from the Premier League followed the season after, and three seasons of toil in the Championship has now led to the same sorry conclusion. Leaving Bolton now would be like abandoning a relative who’s just found out they’re dying.
The Bolton of now is barely recognisable from that which I grew up watching. Not only have the overall results and trajectory completed a dramatic about-face and the club’s always slightly shaky financial health taken on a deathly pall, there’s less been less palpable changes. Success breeds consistency in terms of playing staff and failure the opposite; gone are the days when our rag-tag group of basement bargain finds and ageing superstars would play within a similar unit for years. Recently, it has felt like every game brings another fresh face into the lineup in a desperate attempt to plug a gap and stop the rot.
Even the stadium name change, from the deification of one corporate sponsor, Reebok, to another, Macron, has diminished the connection to the past. Reebok’s Lancastrian roots have long been consigned to the history books, but it was the Reebok where I saw us upset Arsenal on multiple and the Reebok that I saw for the first time on a surprise trip with my dad.
Of course, I still love Bolton. And to make matters worse, I know it can only end badly with Walsall, because it always has. They’ve never been higher than the second tier, and perhaps the most noteworthy episodes of their recent history have been producing the likes of Michael Ricketts, Troy Deeney and Scott Dann, only for them to be sold on for a relative pittance. That, and deciding that of all the luminaries and great minds the game has to offer, Paul Merson was the best option to manage them for a spell in 2004.
Now I am faced with the very real prospect of my ball and chain and my new concubine meeting in the same division next season, I feel compelled to make a choice between them. I’d rationalised my support of Walsall on the basis that they could be my more geographically convenient, lower-league side, a justification which, in my own mind, precluded me from violating the sacred commandment of all “true” football fans; “Thou shan’t support a second team”. As the distinctions between Bolton and Walsall’s current standings have diminished, so has my confidence that my split allegiances aren’t going to throw up complications.
I can’t leave Bolton. They conveniently timed what was arguably the most successful epoch in their storied history when my fanaticism was, as it often is for young teenagers, at its absolute peak. Their travails and shortcomings since have only served to further inextricably entwine the club’s identity with my own. To give up now would be a flagrant breaking of another of the commandments, “Thou shan’t not glory hunt.”
With extricating myself from the snare of the Wanderers’ web out of the question, that leaves Walsall. There’s certain things they’ll simply never be able to replicate. I can’t pretend that Walsall’s Bescot Stadium has ever held quite the same fascination as Bolton’s home. I can’t recall the first Walsall game I went to, but I’ve still got my first Bolton game – a devastating 4-3 defeat, naturally – etched into my memory, right down to the contradictory mix of dejection and exhilaration I felt at the final whistle.
The true acid test for just how much my allegiances will be when the Saddlers and the Trotters face off against one another next season. Until then, Walsall will remain my dirty little secret.
By Matt Clough. Follow @MattJClough