Wanderers began their last stint in League One looking woefully unprepared for the challenges ahead and were relegated having never proved otherwise.
The team which took the field against Coventry City to earn – arguably – the most famous goalless draw in the club’s history on August 10, 2019, had an average age of just 19.6 years.
A few months later, Keith Hill named 11 players with an average age of just over 28 at Accrington. They were soundly beaten 7-1, proving perhaps that there is a substitute for experience, after all.
Whereas the whole of the 2019/20 campaign was born out of panic and necessity, this summer there appears to be more method behind the club’s recruitment. Evatt has brought in eight players, the oldest of which – goalkeeper Joel Dixon – will turn 28 in December and the youngest, loanee winger Xavier Amaechi, is 20.
The squad has its elder statesmen – and by the time the season starts, Ali Crawford will make it seven players aged over 30, a group which also includes Matt Gilks, Alex Baptiste, Eoin Doyle, Andy Tutte, Kieran Lee and Nathan Delfouneso.
But there is a general feel that Evatt will have a group which is not only better prepared than the one his predecessor, Keith Hill, inherited in Wanderers’ last League One incarnation, but also young enough to have aspiration to push to the level above.
The policy of recruiting ‘twentysomethings’ this summer mirrors the club’s ambition to become financially sustainable, a target which will only be achievable if it begins to sell playing assets for profit.
Wanderers succeeded to an extent on that front in recent years – moving on the likes of £6million striker Gary Madine to Cardiff in January 2018 and Zach Clough to Nottingham Forest 12 months earlier. Where they failed miserably, however, was reinvesting in players who could repeat the trick. The timing of both deadline day moves said more about the brinkmanship of the club’s owner at the time, than any particular strategy in the transfer market.
Since Madine’s exit in the Championship days there have been precious few cash deals to keep things afloat. Luca Connell was sold on for a reduced fee by administrators to Celtic when it became clear he could eventually step away from his contract for even less, and Norwich City swooped to land Regan Riley for £250,000 in January – a deal which is also said to be incentivised if the young midfielder progresses at Carrow Road.
Getting that profit machine turning again will involve a different approach in the transfer market and an ability to mix just enough experience with a group of players at the peak of their saleability.
Last summer Bolton produced far too many ‘misses’ in that department, with the notable exception of defender Ricardo Santos, who having recently turned 26 is now potentially Bolton’s biggest playing asset.
The average age of Evatt’s team in League Two averaged anywhere between 25.4 (Mansfield and Oldham at home) and 29.6 (Colchester United at home) – and that age fell slightly in the second half of the campaign, as John, Afolayan and George Thomason became regular starters in the side.
Thomason’s rapid rise has been a big plus and it will be a challenge for Evatt and his coaching staff to keep that progression going. Still only 20, he will be learning on the coal face in the same way the likes of Harry Brockbank, Ronan Darcy and Co did in League One – but with the benefit of a club now rid of all the negative vibes of the time.
Where those academy graduates now sit in the grand scheme is another interesting debate.
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Wanderers have imported younger players this summer – John, Afolayan, Johnston – and it may be in their hands whether Football Ventures’ plan for sustainability is anything other than a pipe-dream. Amaechi's stay is currently down for six months and with some time left to run on his contract at Hamburg a permanent move is by no means certain.
But the Whites also have a generation of their own academy talents who will need regular football if they are to progress, or ultimately produce a profit.
Brockbank managed 19 appearances last term but was hampered by injury, while sightings of Darcy, Adam Senior and Matt Alexander were rare in the extreme.
Bolton’s last success at this level was achieved with an experienced squad. Phil Parkinson’s promotion-winners of 2016/17 would have had an average age touching 30 had it not been for the youth of Josh Vela at the time.
This is a departure and does mirror the more energetic and expansive style of football Evatt prefers – but whether it can be as successful, only time will tell.
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