Coming of age in the early 2000s, I never witnessed the glory of Bolton Wanderers at Burnden Park. But it always held a mythical status in my mind.
Stories of the electric atmosphere and the historic final game against Charlton Athletic have outlived the ground. With Bolton Museum’s recent exhibition, its status has been reborn.
Going to the Match traced L.S. Lowry’s walk down Manchester Road to the heart of Bolton: the football ground. As the centrepiece of the exhibition, Lowry’s 1953 painting captured the essence of the historic club and, as a volunteer, I was frequently asked if the painting on display was the original. After reassuring visitors that, yes, it was, they were often impressed to hear about the journey the painting took in order to arrive at Bolton.
Just last year, the painting’s future seemed uncertain after the Football Association decided to auction it off, raising the possibility of an overseas sale. After considerable controversy and pleas from figures such as the Mayor of Salford to keep it ‘free to access’, the painting was finally purchased by The Lowry for a record-breaking £7.8 million. The masterpiece was subsequently brought home to Salford for public display. As such, the painting rightly belongs in Greater Manchester – the people of Bolton certainly think so.
Rather fittingly, the people are in the veins of Going to the Match. Told throughout the exhibition, the journey down Manchester Road was something of a pilgrimage for Bolton Wanderers fans. Similarly, the day before I began volunteering at the museum, I too made what felt like a pilgrimage to Wembley Stadium to watch Bolton thrash Plymouth Argyle 4-0 in the League Cup Final. At the exhibition the next day, I met fans from across the town who shared their highlights of the trip.
An initial conversation would spark into memories of their first match at Burnden Park (or The Reebok, depending on age), tales of European football under ‘Big Sam’, and a nostalgia for the ‘glory days’. Walking around the exhibition I’ve witnessed hushed arguments over who should be in Bolton’s ultimate dream team and discovered that Jay-Jay Okocha is always up there. Talking to younger fans, I’ve also found a quiet confidence in their club’s revival. While not every visitor went to the recent triumph at Wembley, I’ve been assured that they’ll go next time – because, for for this club, there’s a belief that there will be more golden moments. It didn’t take long for me to realise how much the club means to Boltonians, and how every person who visited the exhibition had their own story to tell.
The exhibition represented something bigger than itself for the people of Bolton. I was delighted to see people who aren’t your usual ‘museum/gallery-goers’ meaningfully engage with Going to the Match and share their slice of the story. Throughout the exhibition, I could feel the hum of optimism, and both a club and a town reborn.
Main image courtesy of The Lowry
Going to the Match is at Bolton Museum in the Temporary Exhibition gallery until June 25, 2023. For more information, click here.