Sunderland travel to Lancashire on Saturday where they will face Bolton Wanderers who currently sit bottom of the League One table on -10 points, following a sequence of financial difficulties.
Jack Ross’ side moved up to 4th after being held at home by Rotherham on Tuesday night. On the other hand, Bolton earned their first point under their new manager Keith Hill as they drew 0-0 with Oxford. Sunderland will be looking to return to winning ways and will be hot favourites against a side who signed nine players on transfer deadline day. Bolton will be looking for their first win of the season and can utilise the pressure on the Black Cats to their advantage.
Ahead of the match, I spoke to Bolton fan and YouTuber Nieve Petruzziello who discussed what has been an exceedingly hard-hitting period emotionally for her community, as well as what we can expect from Hill’s side during the match.
Prior to a last minute takeover, Bolton stared the prospect of liquidation dead in the eye. As a supporter how did it feel knowing you could have lost 150 years’ worth of history and would have had to start completely from scratch?
ND: It was a very surreal feeling because until liquidation physically occurs it’s a bit unbelievable that it will actually happen to your club. I was constantly clinging on to that interest Football Ventures had, I didn’t ever really face the reality of it all because I was adamant we’d be fine. Then when the unfortunate news at Bury reached me I felt excruciatingly nervous, my thumb was shaking whilst texting my Grandad. It was as if in one minute someone had opened my eyes that this is all very real and all those years of history counted for nothing and that felt really unfair.
Considering Bolton’s struggles and Bury’s expulsion from the Football League, has seeing the reality of financial mismanagement changed your opinion on how many risks owners should take when it comes to transfer fees and player wages?
ND: It’s a really difficult topic because in Bolton’s case the lead up to potential liquidation wasn’t a direct consequence of player wages and transfer fees. However owners taking those financial risks is common and certainly can lead to other clubs finding themselves in our position. If you can only bring 1000-3000 people a week in you can’t justify having players on 5 grand a week which some clubs do, this won’t ever change because there’s so many safety nets in football. Even capping wages across the league would cause all sorts of issues because clubs would always be aiming to hit the cap limit, which will be a number that smaller clubs can’t possibly hit which will divide clubs even more. The EFL need to take a zero tolerance approach towards clubs when they find themselves in debt, that’s the only way of stopping over ambitious spending in my opinion.
Bolton’s new owner Sharon Brittan believes that avoiding relegation to League Two is “not an impossible dream”, do you have any realistic hope that you can achieve survival having started on -12 points?
ND: Looking at Oxford United at home I think it’s no longer naive to hope for survival. If these players gel quickly, they have the quality to remain in the division and we have a very experienced league one manager in Keith Hill. If we can reduce the gap to 10 points outside the zone by Christmas, I think we’ll do it, we’ll only get better from there. Regardless, the rebuild starts next season in my eyes, no real pressure on the club to survive from me and most supporters would agree.
Phil Parkinson resigned last month after three seasons in charge of Bolton, were you disappointed to see him leave or did you understand he was powerless at that point before the takeover occurred?
ND: It was the correct time for Phil Parkinson to leave. He has a fantastic CV with us, Bradford City and Colchester United to name a few. He needed a fresh start and we needed a fresh start. I don’t think he left because he felt powerless, he still remained optimistic at that stage that a takeover was imminent, I think he knew it was simply his time to go. He had begged players to turn up for games, he’d gone unpaid for months, had plenty of fans on his back throughout the last 2 seasons and I think he realised he’d fought the battle at our club for too long. He deserves a rest, a chance to breathe and then stability at a new club.
Bolton’s newly appointed manager Keith Hill recently signed three ex-Sunderland players who all featured in the Premier League in Daryl Murphy, Liam Bridcutt and Will Buckley, do you think that kind of experience will be vital to what is an incredibly young squad?
ND: The signings look great. Liam Bridcutt’s confidence and quality on the pitch has been massive for the younger players in itself. Having that experienced guidance and support is crucial, a positive mentality is everything to this club if we are going to battle for survival. It’s also great that we can field different players to give the youngsters a much needed rest, focus purely on nurturing them before having that comfort of being able to ease them back into the side when ready. We have some top talent in Harry Brockbank, Dennis Politic, Ronan Darcy to name a few and that transition to first team football can be achieved properly now which is brilliant.
Hill has spent most of his managerial career at Rochdale in the Football League. Born in Bolton he described the opportunity as a “dream job”, what are you hoping he can achieve in the foreseeable future?
ND: I just want Hill to help stabilise the club by bringing back that community spirit. Him being a Boltonian is massive in that because he gets us, he gets how important the club is to the town. Attacking, hard working football is a must because we need this to be a fresh start and the fans need football they feel they can get behind. The results will come with time and patience, that patience will be a lot more spirited if we can see everybody is grafting and there’s future potential in the style of football we’re watching.
Bolton earned their point under Hill as they drew 0-0 with Oxford on Tuesday in what was an even game, do you feel the team can now kick on and put the run of consecutive 5 goal defeats behind them?
ND: I think so because Tuesday has shown that we’re more than capable of getting clean sheets. More than any other player I hope Remi Matthews, our goalkeeper, will use it to keep moving forward. He’s made the most saves in the league so far and yet conceded so many, on top of the off field drama it can’t have been an easy few months for him and it’s important he knows how important he is to this side. Fans need to get behind every player especially Remi and hopefully momentum will build to keep us going. Sunderland will be a difficult match but we have to keep a mindset that we can hold a game against anybody when we work hard enough. The key word is time really, with time we will improve, we will go into matches expecting to win instead of being nervous about conceding loads of goals.
Earlier in the season Bolton fielded a team with an average age of 19, the youngest in the club’s history. Despite that the team drew 0-0 with League One leaders Coventry - how proud have you been of the way your youth players have stepped up in an incredibly difficult circumstance?
ND: I’m incredibly proud, a lot of these lads might not even be footballers when they’re older. For every academy prospect like Dennis Politic and Harry Brockbank you have dozens who don’t make the cut at professional level and yet when chucked in at the deep end they gave it everything. Their gratitude to us supporters and communication on social media has been beyond special, being able to chat with the young lads is a fantastic feeling and they are more than happy to do so with Bolton fans, they clearly have a lot of respect for the club and were willing to put everything on the line for us. For me, that’s what the club and town is all about, that selflessness and graft. They epitomised that.
Bolton academy graduate Harry Brockbank was strongly linked with Sunderland over the summer. The centre-half has already captained the club aged just 20, were you surprised to see him stay and how far do you think he can go in his career?
ND: I’m not surprised he’s stayed with us because under experienced management and a great set of coaches he’ll thrive at Bolton. He’ll get plenty of first team football and his involvement in the senior team will be transitioned the way it should be now. This is a big season for him and his loyalty to the club is commendable but that is being repaid because this is the best club for him to develop this season. No pressure, knows all the lads around him, great guidance and experience surrounding him. Perfect.
The last time Sunderland visited Bolton was a Championship fixture in 2018 where we were defeated 1-0, what do you think the final score will be on Saturday?
ND: It’s a very different situation to 2018. Sunderland go into this with nothing other than a win in mind especially after only getting a draw mid week whereas, for Bolton, if we can get anything from this it will be our best result of the season. I’d like to think we could score a goal and take advantage of Sunderland’s weak spots which I believe are your defence and game management but realistically I expect us to lose 3-1 this weekend. However that doesn’t affect my positivity whatsoever as a supporter, as I fully understand our rebuild takes time and patience, we will push on from there. If Daryl Murphy returns from fitness and fatigue doesn’t hit the lads as much as I expect then perhaps we can provide a more tight scoreline. We’ll have to wait and see.