Wanderers’ hosts Salford City are in a rush to get promotion from League Two, bankrolled by Peter Lim’s billions and given a national spotlight by Gary Neville and his ex-Manchester United crew.
But one young man looking to dent the Ammies’ chances took the same journey from the North West Counties League and now has folk tipping him to be the next big thing at Bolton.
Just 16 months ago, George Thomason turned out for Longridge Town against Hanley in front of 124 people.
And only last August, the young midfielder played for Northern Premier side Bamber Bridge AGAINST Bolton in a pre-season friendly, as he prepared to start a loan spell to gain first team experience.
Had it not been for the pandemic wrecking the non-league calendar, Thomason may well have stayed the season at the Sir Tom Finney Stadium but by December he was pushed into the first team by Ian Evatt and has not looked back since.
Schooled by Blackpool, the 20-year-old was told he was no longer needed at Bloomfield Road in 2018. He had offers to try out at other EFL clubs but instead chose the stability of a regular start in the ninth step of the football pyramid.
“I had been at Blackpool from Under-8s to 16s on a scholarship and they didn’t offer me another one,” he told The Bolton News. “Rather than going around bouncing off trials at other clubs I thought I’d get into men’s football, get at a stable club, and to be fair to the North West Counties the way that Longridge play football is second to none. It really helped my development.
“Looking back now, it was probably my best decision football-wise. Getting men’s football at an early age meant I was one or two years’ development ahead of the other 18-year-olds who had been in the scholarship environment.
“It really helped and nurtured me. It wasn’t all about the passing elements, it was the dirtier side of things as well, but it had a positive impact on my career and the way I am playing well.”
At Longridge, ex-Wigan Athletic striker Lee Ashcroft had helped covert Thomason from a left-back to a central midfielder, and it was his recommendation to former Bolton boss Keith Hill that led to a trial in January 2019.
From there, he featured for Wanderers’ development squad until it was disbanded at the end of last season, leading to another non-league move.
“Just after lockdown in pre-season I went out on loan to Bamber Bridge and they played a similar style to here, being honest, in terms of the two managers,” he said.
“It got me playing men’s football, more game time, then I trained here to make sure I was in everyone’s minds, trying to raise my own standards and trying to get a look in.
“Thankfully I got the chance in the league against Port Vale. Since then, every time I have gone on to the pitch I’ve tried to give my all, play the best I can, and in the last few months we have really turned a corner. Everyone has come together and it has really benefitted me because I am playing in a high-confidence team and I’m able to produce my best football.”
Thomason’s rapid rise has been one of this season’s real success stories but the player himself acknowledges the support he has been given to make it this far.
“I believe in my own ability,” he said. “I know each day in training if I’m at my best I can be in the manager’s thoughts. Then when an opportunity comes along you have to take it. As a young player you might only get one – it can almost make or break you.
“If you can play with confidence, knowing there is trust from the manager, then you can do it with no worries. You know people on the sidelines have got full belief in what you are doing.
“When you play with that confidence, you play well. And at the moment it is not just me, it is the rest of the boys around me who are performing.
“It’s also credit to my parents and my close friendship group which kept me grounded, told me that I can do it, to believe in myself.
“I went to a club who wanted me, who trusted me, Lee Ashcroft – the Longridge manager – put a lot of faith in me as a 16/17-year-old in his first team because even at that level it is results driven and you might not take a gamble on a young lad. He allowed me to play football and everywhere I have gone since then managers have put faith in me.”
Whether Ian Evatt chooses to put Thomason in from the start against Salford is the next question – and having changed the game after his half-time arrival for Marcus Maddison on Saturday against Harrogate, there must be a temptation for the Bolton boss to do just that.
“It is a huge game but if I get asked to play it doesn’t change for me,” Thomason added. “I go out and try to do my best for the team and the shirt. Every time I am in that 11 I want to play to my standards.
“I know it is a team game, a squad game, and there will be rotation. Every lad in that changing room pulls together and knows that when it is their turn to play they will give it 100 per cent, that is why we are doing so well.
“Whatever the decision is, whenever I am called upon, I will be ready.”