The door has been left ajar for Ali Crawford at Wanderers this summer but it has not been clear in which direction the playmaker will be travelling.
A set piece specialist, boasting the sort of delivery Bolton struggled to replicate at times last season, Crawford supplied a timely reminder of his advantages at Chorley on Tuesday night, creating the winning goal for Adam Senior.
A short cameo at Barrow a few days earlier provided similar evidence, a right foot than could open a tin can but a player who does not currently look to have a natural place in this Wanderers team.
Back in familiar League One territory, Crawford has nearly 50 appearances at this level and was Bolton’s outstanding senior player when last the club played here – this, despite a serious knee injury wrecking a good four months of his campaign.
At the point he was stretchered off in the EFL Trophy against Manchester City’s Under-21s, the former Hamilton and Doncaster Rovers man was the fulcrum of Keith Hill’s side, which basically fell apart thereafter. By the time he returned in February, a rudderless team were drifting to relegation, confirmed by a pandemic.
Nevertheless, it felt like a statement when Bolton secured him to a two-year deal, just two days after Ian Evatt had been confirmed as the new ‘head coach’.
“He is exactly the type of player we want at the football club,” Evatt said at the time.
“Being a possession-based team, his quality on the ball will give us that cutting edge we need and I can’t wait to work with him.”
Through an uber-positive pre-season campaign the artistic Scot and Evatt’s vision of free-flowing football looked like a match from heaven. But when the real business kicked in, neither player nor manager got what they wanted.
Crawford struggled badly for form in the opening few months and so minimal was his impact it is easy to forget he started all but one of Wanderers’ opening 17 league games.
Evatt’s side had failed to find the right midfield balance and after the Whites were bullied out of a result at Walsall just before Christmas, Crawford was one of the high-profile casualties.
Antoni Sarcevic was given a more advanced role, George Thomason came into his own and, eventually, Evatt brought in Kieran Lee and MJ Williams to add some steel.
Crawford started just one more game, a 2-1 defeat at Tranmere, and then ended up being loaned out to Prenton Park as Evatt reached for a different kind of game-changing midfielder in Marcus Maddison, signed on loan from Charlton.
At the time, Crawford had assisted four goals, which was as many as anyone else in the squad. Evatt claimed in January he was no longer able to guarantee the midfielder the games he wanted and so the midfielder accepted an offer from Keith Hill to see out the season on Merseyside.
It would prove an unhappy loan, however, and with Tranmere scoring only three goals in the nine games he featured the potential of a permanent move was never discussed.
The prospect of a return to Bolton must have seemed a bleak one, especially with a calf injury which left him unable to train in the first few weeks.
Evatt said the right things, insisting he would not be ushering anyone towards the exit.
“Doors for all players are never shut really,” he said. “Obviously as you can see it is really competitive, so then it boils down to player decision.
“We are never going to boot anybody out of the football club. It is not the way I do things, but if players want regular first team football and we can’t guarantee them this, we won’t be standing in people’s way.”
For Crawford to work his way back into Evatt’s plans – in a similar way to Liam Gordon, for example – would be quite the turnaround.
He still has some support within the fanbase, those who remember his influential early performances in League One rather than the more anonymous days of last year, and if the Chorley friendly is anything to go by, he still retains a magnificent set piece.
Entering into the final year of his contract, we wait to see whether another loan spell is on the cards, effectively spelling the end of his time with Bolton, or whether there could be a comeback just as miraculous as some of the free kicks Crawford - who turns 30 today - was dishing out quite regularly in his early days at the University of Bolton Stadium.
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