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Where Bolton may look to strengthen after promotion to League One

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse

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Talk in the Wanderers camp is understandably buoyant after the late season run which saw them clinch promotion back to League One at the first time of asking.

Ian Evatt’s January additions did the trick as Bolton rocketed from 21st to third spot in a matter of several weeks but as the celebrations die down, and the adrenaline fades, is it time to take a less emotional look at the players who completed the job?

Last week’s retained list had relatively few casualties, with Arthur Gnahoua and Shaun Miller the only two names who could possibly fall into the ‘surprise’ bracket.

Evatt avoided wholesale changes, potentially in an effort to avoid the settling in problems he encountered early in his tenure. He carried through to pre-season a squad of 23 professionals, with all positions theoretically covered with players who are now familiar with the type of football he is looking to play.

League One will not be an unfamiliar level to Wanderers supporters, for that is where they last saw their team play back in February 2020, before the pandemic forced everyone back behind their laptop screens.

The successful 2016/17 season under Phil Parkinson will also be fresh in the memory, although it may be argued that with seven ex-Premier League sides set to be involved next season it could be even more competitive than ever.

Financially, the division has also changed in the past few seasons. Peterborough United succeeded in getting promotion after reinvesting the money they got from Brentford for Ivan Toney in the likes of Jonson Clarke-Harris and Sammie Szmodics – both for million-pound-plus fees.

Few – if any – sides ended up with a transfer deficit, but the likes of Charlton, Hull City and MK Dons all paid six-figure fees to improve their squads at the height of the pandemic. As the world starts to edge back towards normality, it seems only natural to assume that trend will continue and that the bigger clubs will be looking to invest once again.

Fresh ownership at Sunderland and Wigan Athletic will be looking to make a difference, Portsmouth and Ipswich are in the midst of a rebuild, while a newly stable Blackpool should also have a reasonable budget with which to work.

Wanderers’ quest for sustainability may be a welcome thought for most supporters, considering what they have been through in the last decade.

Football Ventures have not promised the world, financially, but rather to restore the bond between the club and the community – which to date, they are accomplishing admirably.

There will, however, be a historical expectation on Bolton, who will be spending only the 15th season of 133 in the Football League’s bottom half.

To be sustainable and successful is a rare thing in the harsh world of football, not least in a division in which the financial ‘haves and have-nots’ are beginning to polarise in the same manner as the divisions above.

Evatt says his plan is not to spend big but to shop “leaner and meaner” in the transfer market. Aided by technical performance director Chris Markham, the pair have already drawn up a sizeable shortlist of up to 50 names who could fit the bill.

Looking at the individual departments, and assuming those who have been offered contracts do sign, goalkeeper could be a position of interest given that Matt Gilks does not have senior competition in the squad.

Young stopper Matt Alexander was left in limbo last season and it remains to be seen whether he will be viewed as back-up this time around, or whether another option will be brought in.

Evatt has already been linked with his former Barrow charge, Joel Dixon, who remains in talks at Holker Street about another deal.

In defence, Wanderers have already registered their interest in bringing Declan John back to the UniBol after a successful loan from Swansea City last season. This time the Welshman is a free agent, and having revived his career in Lancashire, there will surely be no shortage of interest.

Liam Gordon is the only specialist cover, although both Reiss Greenidge and Harry Brockbank covered in emergencies last season.

On the right, both Gethin Jones and Brockbank have some experience at this level – and indeed a little in the Championship – but neither could be described a League One veteran.

Alex Baptiste (three), Ricardo Santos (four) and Ryan Delaney (three) have all spent a reasonable amount of time at this level, although the lack of experienced cover could be a concern.

In midfield, Kieran Lee, Antoni Sarcevic and MJ Williams all have a century of League One games under his belt – as does Andy Tutte, although the latter was one of the more surprising names on Wanderers’ retained list, given his lack of game time in the second half of the League Two campaign.

Lloyd Isgrove played at this level for Barnsley, helping them to promotion, and even the likes of Ronan Darcy and Dennis Politic have a half-century of appearances between them.

Of the central midfield options, it is only a new experience for George Thomason and Brandon Comley – who has played very briefly in the Premier League but never in League One.

Another player with a decent record in the division is Ali Crawford, playing 48 times for Bolton and Doncaster Rovers, scoring three and creating nine goals. His future with the Whites remains unclear after he spent the latter part of last season out at Tranmere.

Out wide, Nathan Delfouneso has played 143 games and scored 23 times in League One, the majority of which was for Blackpool but also in spells at Coventry and Bury.

Wanderers will need some cover in the wide positions. Evatt hopes to bring Dapo Afolayan back after his strong finish on loan last term but do not back against at least one more wide attacking player joining the mix – although reports linking ex-Portsmouth man Andy Cannon have been played down.

Up front, Eoin Doyle is out alone at the moment following Miller’s departure. His record at League One level is very sound – with exactly 100 appearances, 46 goals and 15 assists in three seasons spent at Chesterfield, Oldham Athletic and Bradford City.

Finding competition looks like being one of Evatt’s big tasks this season and he has already found himself credited with an interest in Morecambe’s Cole Stockton, a powerfully built front man who would represent a very different option up front to last season’s top scorer.

Finding someone who can share the goal burden a little more equally than last season will also be advantageous at the higher level.

Doyle scored 19 of Bolton’s 59 in the league, a contribution of 32 per cent bettered only by Cambridge United’s Paul Mullin, who rattled in 33 of the U’s 73 (44 per cent).

Mullin also registered a divisional-high 3.7 shots per game, whereas Doyle’s tally came from a reduced 2.8 shots per game.

Morecambe striker Stockton’s 13 league goals for the Shrimps came from a similar rate of 2.7 shots per game.

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