It looked to be a sound enough appointment: a fresh young coach for a talented young list, a class, a teacher. Remember that he replaced the greybeard great Mick Malthouse: the Blues could hardly have gone back down that path.
It also signalled the club’s acceptance that the 1980s finally were over. They would take their time and their medicine. Let’s face it: by 2016, they must have built up plenty of immunity.
In this humble context, Bolton and the Blues began well enough, with 13 wins in his first two seasons. Thirteen was plenty enough to maintain the faith, few enough for the premium draft picks still to flow. Five No. 1 draft picks (including the departed Bryce Gibbs) would represent a rich crop at any club, at any time. Around them, Carlton’s recruiting was at least astute, if not inspirational. It hardly helped that they were no one’s idea of a destination club.
Then Bolton’s Blues stalled. Four wins in the last 39 games became a weight that almost no coach could have lugged forward. You could only feel sorry for Bolton as he strove to put a cheery public face on a private humiliation. If nothing else, his remains a cheery face.
If he had single failing, reputedly it was that he kept the players under too tight a rein. If it had brought success, it might have been tolerated. But it didn’t, which meant the traces pinched tighter still.
Could Bolton have avoided this fate? Yes, with wins. It’s that simple. For all that has changed and evolved in footy, the winning imperative has not.
Four times this season, the Blues have led in the last quarter. The most recent was against arch-rival Collingwood, four short weeks ago. Collectively, these were the tide in the affairs of Carlton’s men. But they were not taken at the flood, and so instead a growing and compounding feeling of victory at the club, each new loss was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Circumstances conspired, too. Notionally, Carlton were walking in the footsteps of the Brisbane Lions, a season behind. Brisbane are turning last year’s series of near misses into this year’s cascade of wins. The Blues were turning near misses into wider misses. Poignantly, they play Brisbane this week.
Meantime, they lost even to Gold Coast, the one club measurably worse off than the Blues, at least on paper. There were two orphans that day, the perennially unloved Suns and Carlton’s further defeat.
Then North Melbourne parted ways with a coach who had just won, and immediately won again. This served only to accentuate what Carlton was not doing. Then Dale Thomas ran off the rails, and ended up in the reserves. It was a relatively minor deviation, but untimely. It hinted at the possibility of resignation within the playing cohort.
Here was the pus, building up under the ever reddening skin. If Bolton’s point of difference at the start was that he was not a coaching heavyweight, a former star or a favourite son, now it became his millstone. It meant he could be cut loose with no greater hurt than a bit of boardroom embarrassment. He takes with him only platitudes.
So the boil has been lanced, but the sore remains, an open and aching wound, with no certainty that the contagion is gone and guarantee that this summary remedy will work, only that the emergency has passed. For now.
Greg Baum is chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age.