To say 2011/12 was a tough season for Bolton Wanderers fans is a massive understatement, as setback after setback culminated in The Trotters’ inevitable relegation from the Premier League. Things can only get better this time around, with Bolton considered amongst the favourites to win The Championship this season. But it may not be so simple.
Wanderers boss Owen Coyle has opted to try and stop the rot by focusing on youth, releasing no less than 15 players from his squad over the pre-season. Stalwart goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskalainen has moved on to join the ex-Bolton mission at West Ham, while fellow fans’ favourite Ricardo Gardner was allowed to leave the club. Gretar Steinsson, Ivan Klasnic, Paul Robinson, Sean Davis, Robbie Blake, Mark Connolly, Tope Obadeyi, Rhys Bennett, Dino Fazlic and Tom Eckersley were all released, while Nigel Reo-Coker activated a release clause in his contract.
This leaves Bolton somewhat light in their first-team squad, which has been further depleted by the retirement of Fabrice Muamba and the ongoing injury concerns over Stuart Holden, who has played one match in 18 months, and David Wheater, who will likely miss at least the first half of the season. But the team has been bolstered by the return of Tyrone Mears and Chung-Yong Lee, who both missed all of last season with broken legs.
Coyle has dipped into the transfer market, bringing in Matt Mills from Leicester to bolster the defence, Leeds goalkeeper Andy Lonergan as backup to Adam Bogdan and energetic midfielder Keith Andrews. Gregg Wylde, signed from Rangers in March, is finally available after his international clearance was refused last season and should excel at this level. An exciting addition to the squad has been the loan signing of Arsenal striker Benik Afobe, who notched a hat-trick in last week’s friendly against Tranmere Rovers.
Bolton should have enough about them to challenge at the top of what will be a very competitive Championship this season. It will be imperative for the club to get off to a positive start, as the misery of last season could easily resume if early results don’t go their way.
Much of their fortunes rest on the shoulders of goal-shy striker David Ngog, who really owes Bolton fans some performances and, God forbid, goals this season, and the promising Marvin Sordell, who made the Team GB squad for the Olympics. Meanwhile, retaining the services of club legend and captain Kevin Davies is a big plus to assist in the development of these youngsters.
Wanderers also have good midfield strength in the likes of tricky wingers Lee, Wylde and Chris Eagles, who has impressed at this level with Burnley in the past but was awful last season, and the inconsistent Martin Petrov, who should have been sold in the summer. In central midfield Andrews should prove a wise signing and Bolton fans will be expecting to see much improved performances from Mark Davies, if he stays at the club, and the generally useless Darren Pratley. Youngster Josh Vela impressed towards the end of the last season and reportedly performed well in pre-season friendlies too. If Holden can get back to fitness then that would be a massive plus, but its dubious whether the American will ever reach the level he was playing at prior to his injury.
The real concerns for Bolton are at the back, with the lengthy absence of Wheater a real concern. Tim Ream impressed at times having joined the club in January and it remains to be seen how Mills will settle into the side, while handing the hopeless Zat Knight a new two year contract at the club was an absolute atrocity. However, Sam Ricketts, Mears and youngster Joe Riley probably rank amongst the best full-backs in the division.
This should be a season where Bolton fans finally get something to smile about, having suffered a horror season in the previous campaign. A good start to the season is an absolute necessity to create a sense of optimism around the club.