Every time I have seen pictures of the Reebok Stadium on TV or watched a game on the TV, it has always struck me as one of the most attractive looking of the new breed of stadiums; I was excited to visit this stadium for Swansea’s FA Cup 4th round clash with Bolton.
Friday night, the night before the game, I hit the internet to research what drinking holes to visit in Bolton before the next day’s 3 o’clock kick off; this was where the first moment of disappointment struck: The Reebok Stadium is not exactly near the town of Bolton, instead it resides in an area about 15 minutes away called Horwich – 5.8miles away from Bolton. The area was a rural community until the industrial revolution grasped the area in the early 1800s and caused a massive increase in Horwich’s population; the introduction of the railway network in the 1890s trebled the population. The old industries have now all but gone and Horwich’s old industrial background has been replaced with many out-of-town developments, which have included the Reebok Stadium.
Following the closure of Bolton’s intimidating Burnden Park, the Reebok Stadium was opened in 1997 by the then recently appointed deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott. The stadium was not ready for the opening fixtures of the 1997/98 season, forcing Bolton to play their first few games away from home; their switch to the Reebok coincided with Bolton’s second voyage into the Premiership under Colin Todd. The first home game came against Everton and ended in a 0-0 as did the next game against the champions, Manchester United. The Reebok deadlock was finally broken in their 3rd game in a tight contest against Tottenham, a game in which Alan Thompson scored the only goal from the penalty spot.
As the train creeps into Horwich Parkway station you are instantly greeted by the stadium. The stadium looks fantastic towering over the various retail parks, industrial estates, Tesco Extra etc. that are scattered around it; but here in lies the biggest problem as an away fan at a Bolton game: what the hell is there to do before the game?
Any fan that is travelling via car or coach has an easy trip as the stadium is easily accessed from the adjacent M61. For any other football fan seeking pre-match indulgencies or even just a simple pub, a visit to the Reebok is a far more frustrating experience. A brief 2 minute walk off the train and you are greeted by retail park boozer of choice, Harvester; predictably this was home fan only, as was the Sports Lounge opposite. After encountering another gang of Swansea fans (complete with 1 Irish guy and 2 Americans) and a 15 minute gauntlet jumping over fences, darting across busy dual carriageways and encountering strange old men walking their dogs around Tesco, we finally arrived at The Beehive. The place appeared to be the only pub within walking distance of the stadium, but luckily it was the designated away pub. The place looked very tidy and spacious from the outside and this proved the case on the inside. The Beehive was very reasonably priced (a decent £2.75 a pint) and there were plenty of TVs to watch the early FA Cup kick off between Liverpool and United. The break in action in the televised game brought the Jack Army to life as the whole songbook got a run out along with a new chorus of “Josh McEachran’s having a party…” and the various substances you could bring to the said party; a song borrowed from Chelsea fans I am told. The boisterous mood of the Jack Army clearly got to me, as I suddenly suggested that we all do shots before going to the game after seeing some other Swansea fans getting some (UPDATE: I write this additional bit after going to the Reebok Stadium a second time and we haved decided that it is now compulsory to have a shot at the Beehive before every visit to the Reebok in future – it is a ritual which will be retained).
After our pre-match drinks and sing song, we made our way to the away end, where you are greeted by one of the strangest sights of any ground in the Premiership or Football League: its very own 4 star hotel attached to the side of the stadium, complete with rooms overlooking the pitch for the ultimate “prawn sandwich” experience.
Away from this luxurious element of Bolton Wanderers, credit must be given to the club for selling their programmes at a standard-programme-price-defying price of £2, instead of the usual £3 you find at pretty much any ground up and down the country.
The concourse inside the stadium is relatively big and there were plenty of toilets and food and drink was reasonably priced. The various TV screens around the concourse began to display the two teams respective line-ups and we were greeted with the news that Brendan had deployed an “alternative” (not weakened) starting XI with 10 changes from the previous Premier League game against Sunderland; there was a buzz generated by the fact that Josh McEachran would be making his 1st start for the club after making a cameo up at the Stadium of Light the previous week.
The game was pretty dull really with neither side really taking control of it; the game was also hampered by the poor showing from the Bolton faithful as the stadium’s bowl was scattered with empty seats and there was very little noise generated by the fans that were present.
Just as the 1st half was coming to a close, the Swans began to instigate their fine passing game and started launching the ‘Swansea Triangle’ around the pitch; out of a few neat passes and a clever (falling over) flick from Leroy Lita, the ball landed at Luke Moore’s feet – Moore gently knocked the ball past David Wheater and having navigated his way around his large frame met the ball again and followed with a clever ‘dink’ over the onrushing Adam Bogdan: a brilliant opening goal. Since his arrival at the Liberty Stadium during the early stages of last January’s transfer window, Luke Moore has struggled to really strike excitement amongst the Jack Army, but he has always been a guilty pleasure of mine, so I was particularly pleased to see his name on the score sheet. I think he is especially astute playing behind the main striker; however, this is not me making a claim for him to be a regular in the starting XI.
It’s always nice to get a goal just before half-time, but then it’s not so great when the opposition also gets one straight after you have achieved this feat. Predictably, ex-Swan, Darren Pratley, would go on to score a header from an accurate in-swinging free kick from Martin Petrov from the edge of the box. I personally disagreed with the boos that resounded from the away end that followed Pratley throughout the game; a great servant to the club and who can forget THAT goal in the Playoff semi-final. Pratley displayed his respect for his former club by insisting on not celebrating his goal.
My mate had decided to beat the toilet/beer/food queues so he headed down minutes before half-time meaning he duly missed both goals. Fortunately for me, this meant I had a beer waiting for me courtesy of his queue-beating/goal-missing ways.
The 2nd half was even worse than the 1st half, although Bolton began to take control of the game. There was a sense that a 2nd goal for them was coming and the impressive Chris Eagles looked the most likely candidate. This proved to be the case just before the hour as Gerhard Tremmel, given a rare chance between the sticks instead of the rested Michel Vorm, spilled a weak Martin Petrov shot, which Eagles reacted quickest to and fired into the back of the net.
The cavalry of Joe Allen, Nathan Dyer and Danny Graham improved the Swans dramatically with the latter striking the post from a hanging header in the last ten minutes, but it was too little too late and Bolton held on to get their name in the “hat” for the 5th Round Draw.
We decided to avoid the stampede towards the nearby train station and headed back to The Beehive for a couple of drinks and to reflect on the game/day. I assumed many fans would take similar action, so I was quite surprised to find the pub pretty much empty.
In all fairness, Bolton has to be one of my least favourite away days. The stadium is excellent and it does justice for a team that has been part of British (not English) football’s elite league for over a decade. If you have the money to do such a venture, I’m sure the stay in the adjoining hotel would also be an interesting experience. However, for all the grandiose of the Reebok Stadium, the surrounding area is just plain dull and offers nothing of interest to somebody visiting the area to watch a football match. This feeling of dullness strikes you immediately as you exit over the bridge at Horwich station and are greeted by the various generic retail parks. The Beehive is definitely recommended as a pre match drinking hole, although it seems like you have practically little or no choice unless you want to venture miles away from the stadium into the town of Bolton itself.
Highlights: Cool stadium, £2 programmes, The Beehive….plenty of places to go shopping if you like going shopping and then to a football match
Low points: Few pubs around the ground, no atmosphere surrounding or in the ground, lots of walking around busy roads, generally a dull area