There is a disused office deep in the bowels of the University of Bolton Stadium, the 28,000-capacity home of Bolton Wanderers.
It is currently being used as an emergency food bank for the club’s desperate staff. In a corner sits a freezer, packed with ready meals. There are also tins of food and a pile of fruit.
Its location, far from prying eyes, is not a mistake. Employees at the stricken former giant, in administration after a horrendous era of financial woe, remain unpaid for April but they also remain proud. Despite being blameless, the stigma over being seen to take a handout is hard to remove.
Players are in pain over Bolton’s demise but the impact on non-playing staff is truly horrific
In another room, Phil Mason gets an email. Bolton’s chaplain, busier than he has ever been, can predict what its contents will be. ‘They always start the same,’ he says. ‘I’m sorry to ask, but…’
Mason is in the eye of the storm. The public know the story of Bolton’s miserable season, which saw them relegated from the Championship, unable to fulfil their fixtures at the conclusion of the three-year reign of the deeply unpopular former chairman Ken Anderson.
They will also know that the players were not paid their wages in March and April and went on strike. But what they may not know is that, just a few miles from the riches of the Etihad Stadium and Old Trafford, is a heartbreaking human story.
Mason, 54, is speaking to the local authority to try to gain extensions for those who have been unable to pay their council tax. ‘They have been very understanding,’ he says. That comes as no surprise — at the last count Bolton council itself was owed around £1million by the football club.
The chaplain is also contacting the landlords of staff who have not been able to pay their rent, to plead for time and understanding. It gets worse.
Bolton chaplain Phil Mason has pleaded with landlords of staff who cannot pay their rent
‘Many of those who can get overdrafts are already at their limits,’ he says. ‘Then there are those who simply can’t pay their bills who are now worried about the impact it will have on their credit ratings when they try and get a mortgage or a credit card.’
Mason has referred some staff, struggling mentally, to counsellors. He has sent others to charities who rearrange finances and secure loans — charities he normally contacts on behalf of the destitute in his community, not those with full-time jobs at a club in the richest football country on the planet.
He returns to the email. ‘Some people have dietary requirements and don’t like asking for specific foods,’ he says. ‘Others have babies who can’t use certain nappies because they give them a rash. They are apologising for asking when they have nothing to be sorry for — and I tell them that.’
One member of staff, who wishes to remain anonymous, tells Sportsmail: ‘It’s been devastating. Most of the people here are long-standing Bolton fans and we feel like we have a responsibility to make sure that the club survives.
‘There is a pulse but it’s faint. A lot of us are borrowing money from family to pay bills and everyone is wondering if we’ll get paid on May 31. People are at their overdraft limits. I know that some have started to car share on their way to work while others are getting the bus. Some have even started to walk to work. There is embarrassment at asking for help, that is human nature.
‘You don’t want to put on relatives because it’s not their fault but there’s not much else you can do. We’re all just hoping that better days are around the corner.
‘If there is a positive it is that it has brought the staff together. We are all supporting each other as best as we can.’
Mason, who has been at the club since the glory days of Sam Allardyce, believes that in a time of darkness there is light. On Tuesday, £2,000 of shopping vouchers arrived from local rivals Preston North End. He says Bolton have been inundated with offers of help from other clubs and beyond. Above all, the strength of the staff shines through.
‘They have shown incredible tenacity to continue to come to work. Incredible resilience. These are people who love this club.’
As for the players, Andy Taylor, Bolton’s left back, has combined playing with studying for a Masters in Sports Directorship.
As the club’s Professional Footballers’ Association representative, he did not realise his day job would provide work experience for his course. Taylor can trace problems back to the day he signed on loan and was told that the club was under transfer embargo but would soon be out of it. ‘It went on for the rest of the season!’ he says.
An emergency food bank have been set up at Bolton’s stadium to help members of staff
Taylor, 32, has been stunned by what he has seen. ‘We stayed up on the last day last season and there was a real buzz,’ he explains. ‘But then we come in for pre-season and there was an issue with the training kit. I don’t think the payment was authorised, so we ended up wearing mismatched gear — some new, some from last year.’
Then came problems with the wages, which were often delayed. ‘A lot of people have bills coming out on the first of the month. We were finding out the day before pay day that they weren’t going to be in. It impacted on our family lives and then on our work.’
Taylor says there was no communication with Anderson, who paid himself £525,000 in ‘consultancy fees’ in his first year in charge. ‘That was one of the worst things,’ he says. ‘I was getting asked questions by the lads and I just couldn’t answer them.’
In March, the Bolton News broke the story that the club’s training ground had closed for the day due to a lack of fuel and provisions.
‘The players pay £200 a month and that’s meant to cover food and bottled water at the training ground,’ Taylor explains. ‘From January the food suppliers stopped getting paid and there was no more bottled water. The chef has had to get petty cash to go to Tesco. We’ve been buying a bottle of water and then refilling it from the tap. All this and we’re one league away from the Premier League!’
It is the non-playing staff hit hardest – they feel embarrassed but there is anger as well
Taylor adds that there were often fears the team bus would not turn up for away matches. ‘At the eleventh hour a bit of the bill has been paid and we’ve been picked up.’
Some players who live outside the area used to spend a few nights a week at the Whites Hotel in the stadium — until it closed its doors for a fortnight. ‘We had to arrange different accommodation for the last game at Forest,’ Taylor says. ‘A lot of the players just drove there from home.’
But it is the non-playing staff hit hardest. They feel embarrassed but there is another emotion — anger. One took a swipe at the English Football League. The EFL suggested the club’s youngsters would have to fulfil their ultimately unplayed fixture with Brentford and, after administration, announced that Wanderers would be deducted 12 points in League One next season.
‘The EFL have been a disgrace,’ says the club employee. ‘We have had nothing from them. No calls to see if they can support us, nothing. They were quick to take 12 points off us, mind.’
Meanwhile, the doors to the food bank open, and another worker tries to slip in and out without being seen.