“Wycombe know all about the ups and downs of football,” Keith Hill explains, before Saturday’s meeting of the Wanderers in Bolton. “It’s only a few years since they only stayed in the Football League on goal difference, the season Bristol Rovers went down. “They are in a different place now, in front of us, but we are on a different journey.”
That is one way of putting it, though the harsh reality is that the two travellers meeting at the Macron on Saturday appear to be wandering in different directions. Wycombe are pushing for promotion to the Championship, while Bolton, who started the season with barely any players and a 12-point deduction, are bottom of the table and looking at a drop into League Two.
While that is not quite the way their stoical manager sees it – “Miracles do happen but you’ve got to believe in them,” Hill says – the maths are starting to stack up against an escape from the fate that has been staring them in the face all season. Even with only three teams going down this year because of Bury’s demise Bolton are 18 points from safety, and would need to win 10 of their remaining 16 games just to reach the 40-point mark. That is clearly going to be a tall order for a team that have won only five of their previous 28.
“The results don’t show it but we have made big progress this season,” Hill argues. “We still have to go through a lot of pain but you can come out the other side. We are only going through what Coventry and Portsmouth have been through, and at least we are not suffering what happened to Bury. I knew relegation was a possibility when I came here in summer and I still wanted the job. I was open-eyed about it then and I still don’t see it as a pressure situation now. What has happened has happened, there’s nothing we can do to alter it. There’s no quick fix here. I could be sacked tomorrow but the results won’t change.”
Born in Bolton 50 years ago, Hill has a natural affinity with his hometown club, and though he shares the supporters’ frustration at its presently reduced circumstances, he compares the situation to a marriage. “If things start to go wrong, do you just give up on it?” he says. “I’ve been married for 29 years and you have to stick with it. Instead of giving up or walking away you should look to see if you can salvage something.”
In all probability Bolton will be attempting to do that from an even lower position next season, if they are unable to prevent a return to the bottom division for the first time since 1988. Would it not be easier just to accept their fate instead of believing they still have a chance?
Hill thinks not. “I’ve never been relegated, so I don’t know, but it’s possible that if our fate is confirmed before the end of the season there might be a positive bounce because there’s no pressure,” he says. “That’s not the answer though, until relegation becomes a mathematical certainty we have to find a way of performing under pressure. We can’t pretend we have a lot to smile about at the moment but we do know what we are doing.
“We have been dealt a difficult hand and we are trying to make the best of it. I don’t want to keep hearing that the players aren’t good enough, because that is detrimental to a group that is working hard to find a way forward.”
Hill and his players know they have support within the town and on the terraces, attendances have held up quite well through all the tribulations of the past few months, though that too might change should Bolton’s fate be sealed before the end of the season.
“The impossible dream is still alive, even if we have to win 12 of our last 16 games,” the manager says. “That might sound impossible, but sometimes it can just take one result or one thing to click into place to set you on a run