The start of 2012/2013, 2013/2014, 2014/2015 and 2015/2016 seasons gave us abhorrent displays and all 23 other sides a proverbial headstart that remained unassailable throughout. The importance of starting well is mind-numbingly obvious and yet Wanderers never prepared to the extent of more successful sides. Off-the-field issues aside, the pre-season and squad planning was constantly shoddy and lacked any cohesion.
So, I'm going to look at each pre-season/August of those seasons and put forward my argument as to why Phil Parkinson is oh so different.
After a season that involved the dropping of several key first-team players, sale of team captain, relegation and the near tragedy of Fabrice Muamba; the one thing that was evidently needed was change. Without a change to the ageing squad and inept management of Owen Coyle, Bolton risked stagnation - what happened was far worse.
The half-backed decision of trusting Coyle to get us back up was followed by NO SALES. Out-of-contract experience left; Steinsson, Gardner, Robinson, Klasnic & Reo-Coker but no dead wood was let go. To accompany this failed opportunity for freshness, Bolton brought in just 3 permanent first team signings in the shape of journeymen Keith Andrews, Matt Mills and Andy Lonergan. The loan signing of Jay Spearing was, admittedly, an exceptional addition that year but that came on deadline day. This highlights Wanderers' ineptitude in the market.
As a newly relegated team, Bolton were the big boys of the Championship. Promotion favourites with a couple of million to throw at it too. In comparison, Blackburn went and shelled out on Jordan Rhodes. This was either a naivety of assuming we were fine, a lack of organisation and planning or a blatant lack of ambition with a will to become mediocre.
The squad was ageing and slow. Kevin Davies, Martin Petrov, Keith Andrews, Sam Ricketts and Zat Knight were key starters at the beginning of the season. No team would ever mount a serious challenge with that many veterans in the XI. The lack of research and knowledge of Championship football was also evident. Although Coyle fluked a promotion with Burnley, his team selection and formation showed a clinging-on to Premier League tactics without planning any attacking patterns. Two out and out wingers, big man, little man with a narrow defence got you up. That had been a theme in the division for a while and continued for a couple more seasons. There was no place for David N'Gog, Chris Eagles in the no.10 with no right winger, Petrov's lack of tracking back became even more exposed. These were issues that Wanderers arrogantly went in believing would be too good for actual cohesion and structure.
Pre-season began with a winless tour of Scotland, wins against Morecambe and Tranmere, a defeat to Portsmouth, draw with Crewe and finished with a 2-2 draw with Barcelona B. The Barca B performance worried me. Never, ever read into results but performances and energy levels a week before the start of the season is something to concentrate on. What was evident is Barcelona B ran more and went deeper into the game without blowing than The Whites - it was their second friendly.
The lack of preparation into Championship style of play was shown up in the most embarrassing of ways. 3,500 supporters made the short trip to Turf Moor to watch Charlie Austin and Martin Paterson expose the frailties in Wanderers' defensive positioning. A 2-0 win against Derby in which both goals came inside the final 15 and a home draw to Forest were fairly reasonable results. The goals scored by Wanderers were unsustainable, these were goals that had no move or pattern behind them. They were simply pieces of skill, long-range shots and shocking defending. These aren't things you can weekly rely on. The international break came after a 3-1 defeat to eventual promotion-winners Hull.
Off and on the field, Wanderers lacked planning. The flat energyless 4-4-2 was quickly exposed by Burnley, Forest and Hull and the early season strongly matched the early
to mid-season performances of the previous season.
Dougie Freedman. The arrogant hypocrite that maintained his belief he was utterly blameless. Brought back the toxicity of Megsonism. Wanderers missed out on the playoffs the season before by a goal on the final day. A 2-2 draw with Blackpool gave Rob Hall his debut and for once, Freedman admitted a mistake. However, we remained favourites for a second season running.
The summer began with the inevitable departure of the improved Marcos Alonso to Fiorentina as well as the release of Gregg Wylde, Sam Ricketts and club legend Kevin Davies. However, unlike the year before, there was an overhaul with incomings as Alex Baptiste, Marc Tierney, Raob Hall, Hayden White and Conor Wilkinson all joined on the 1st of July. Later followed by Jermaine Beckford and Andre Moritz. We had adopted the approach of scatter-gun with no actual recruitment order but nonetheless it was far more promising. Jay Spearing joined just days before the first home game of the season but the fact we couldn't get it done a week or two earlier was not financial. It was haggling £250,000 off the fee in which we would have to eventually pay back in bonuses. Another example of the then board caring for the long-term future of our club.
The staleness of Freedman's style brought results in the previous season. The only way the bland possession-based yet aimless football could become acceptable is if it paid dividends, it didn't.
A winless pre-season culminated in a 2-0 defeat to Real Betis. Never, ever look too much into friendly scores but Wanderers had 24% possession. That's just utterly embarrassing. Once again, Betis very early on in their training.
Something that I will defend Freedman with is that we had a tactical identity under him. It was horrific and failed miserably but it did actually have some sort of thought behind it. However, I don't think I need to go too much into detail with regards to the early season performances, I will just give you the results.
Burnley (a) 1-1, Reading (h) 1-1, Forest (a) 0-3, QPR (h) 0-1 and Blackburn (a) 1-4. 2 points and around 12 changes to the starting XI. In 5 games, astoundingly shocking. This winless beginning continued for 5 more games until October.
So, he didn't know his own team, he didn't know who he wanted to sign and he failed to pu together a performance with the promotion favourites until October. The man kept his job, that should sum up the state of the club at that time
The start of the season this time resulted in Freedman finally going. I think that should probably say enough. However, things had changed. In the transfer window, Wanderers' financial troubles were becoming enormously prominent in the market. Frees and loans were the order of the day for the foreseeable future (even now). So, what do you do when you're that tight? You form a proper scouting network and act quickly on those running down their contracts, Burnley and Ipswich were recent models for cheap and sustained success. It's all about the standard of recruitment at this stage. Freedman did sign and signed in fair bulk, however, the laziness and ignorance would've rivalled that of Coyle.
Leon Cort, his mate, was hired to essentially sign his mates from South London and Cardiff. Danns, Dervite, Feeney, Fitzsimons, Trotter, Hughes, Taylor & Moxey all joined from south of the Thames (Millwall, Palace & Charlton) while other Championship sides like Brighton and Bournemouth picked up solid Premier League free agents. The loans of Mason and McNaughton really signalled Bolton's lack of intent for the new season. The signings of journeymen in the second division was striking. There was no plan, it was squad-filling and unsurprisingly led to a shocking start even by the shocking standards of Wanderers in previous seasons.
A tour of Scandinavia in pre-season gave some positives both with results and attacking play. However, once again, it was a winless home friendly against Vitesse Arnhem this time.
LDLLLD began the season. Once again, the man somehow still in a job, began the season not knowing his best XI and that is on him. It may have been a weak squad but he failed at his actual job description. A fortunate 3-2 win over Rotherham was followed up by 3 more defeats without scoring. He eventually left, mutually apparently.
Now, I must say, this next bit isn't really that related to the subject of this entire article but it's important to note. Of course Freedman was dealt a difficult hand and many have excused him and Lennon for that but no, I'm sorry. A struggle is expected but there was no fight, no effort and all the other cliché's. The apathy that surrounded the club became dangerous as it sucked out any enthusiasm or momentum that could've halted the rapidly steep decline. Players like Kevin Davies and Gregg Wylde have since come out and talked about the reluctance to want to work, he drove people away from connecting with the club. His totalitarianism led to Vela and Clough not breaking through until later on and his stubborn arrogance massively contributed to our club fading. That man may not have had the worst record, worst tactics or even the most hated but he is up there as the worst manager this club has ever had. What he set up and did demolished the identity and feeling. Resigning after a 4-0 defeat on a Wednesday night at Fulham could not perfectly sum him up.
We replaced him with sheer incompetence. Lennon's first half season provided hope before fizzling out and giving us no momentum.
Early summer signings included Ben Amos, Gary Madine and Derik. Then, on the cusp of the season, we signed Stephen Dobbie and Lawrie Wilson (I know). Now, obviously, Lennon's opportunities in the transfer window were hugely limited by Wanderers' off-the-field farce. However, he spent actual money on a fee for Filip Twardzik, wages on Eidur Gudjohnsen, Barry Bannan, Emile Heskey, Simeon Slavchev and Rochinha. These winter deals led to the constraints put on him. He did still manage to bring in Prince-Desir Gouano, Wellington Silva, Jose Manuel Casado and Francesco Pisano as well. These are players that had decent pedigree across Europe. However, what I'd suggest is these were never targets from the start. These were late suggestions that Wanderers went through with in panic.
The previous season saw Blackpool's mis-management result in a woeful relegation. This season drew a few similarities. The squad wasn't big enough whatsoever and yet somehow it was still unbalanced. The legacy of Freedman. Neil Lennon's natural desire to play attacking football but knowing need to play more defensively in the Championship resulted in Johann Mjallby's importance. Mjallby left in early September and well, you could guess that shambles that followed.
Pre-season included a winless tour of Austria, including a 4-1 defeat to Paderborn. The Blackpool-esque chaos of the club was highlighted by another desperate attempt at failing to prepare. Hosting a final friendly at home to fellow soon-to-be relegated Charlton. 2-2, accepting sighs across South Lancashire and South London ensued.
A credible draw on the opening day with Derby was tarnished by a Jay Spearing red card followed up by being 3-0 down at Boro within half an hour. Lost to newly-promoted to MK Dons and eventually scored in the 94th minute of the 4th game against Forest, an equaliser. We then completed our 1 goal in 5 games by drawing 0-0 at Blackburn. This was, arguably, the best part of the season and yet it still set the tone.
No more can be said, it was and remained depressing.
Now, I sincerely believe Parkinson can change this theme. You look at those starts and pre-season and then compare to the 4 wins from 4 last year. I know it was a weaker league but Parkinson did what Coyle and Freedman couldn't. One thing that Parky gets criticised for is his rigid approach. One thing you cannot have a go at him for is the results it gets and the organisation he relies on. His planning and structure is what is key to this season. He is the first manager in nearly 25 years to have started his Bolton career at the start of the summer, he had that luxury and it worked. Now, we've been up since April, if we aren't prepared on the 5th of August then it's simply unforgivable. The fixtures are released tomorrow and this will provide a key difference. Can you imagine Lennon looking into detail immediately as they were released? He would be to busy. Parkinson will see our first 6 and pin-point which games to target and which he won't. His planning and preparation was clear from the off last season. We will be ready for the start and will not have to ease our way into it. His style is far better suited to the Championship than League One and I sincerely believe we will start the season well. For once in this decade, we are prepared on-the-pitch. Now, it's down to Lee and Ken Anderson to make sure they can give Parky his tools, I'm sure they will.
I don't want this to come across as blind optimism as there are the complexities of fitness levels being improved and squad depth being improved. However, structurally, Parkinson suits the Championship and is the polar opposite of our 3 managers in between Premier League relegation and League