Two years ago, and with Wanderers just days out of administration, Keith Hill and David Flitcroft embarked on a footballing version of Supermarket Sweep, assembling an eclectic group of players to wear a kit that hadn’t even been made yet.
To the best of our knowledge, there was no Dale Winton, nor a shopping trolley in sight – but there had never been a late dash like it at Bolton, who brought together loans and free transfers from every corner of the land in the space of 48 hours, nearly breaking the internet in the process.
And for an intoxicating few days we revelled in the idea of a bright future under local lads, and new owners Football Ventures.
Once sobered, initially by a 6-1 defeat at Rotherham, the quality of that scattergun group became predictably inconsistent. Though there were brief moments of hope that Hill’s rag-tag bunch overhaul a 12-point EFL penalty, eventually a feeling of inevitability seeped in as the club’s slide towards relegation began with an embarrassing 7-1 pummelling at Accrington, ending prematurely with the onset of a global pandemic.
Fast forward to 2021 and current Bolton boss Ian Evatt has also added nine players to his ranks during the summer window, following an immediate promotion from League Two. He did so with the luxury of forward planning, working alongside technical performance director Chris Markham to identify talent that was geared toward his own brand of football, his squad constructed almost entirely before a competitive ball was kicked.
How this logical – and for Bolton, radical - approach fares this season we will not know until May. But the absence of drama on deadline day has left some feeling unsatisfied and asking questions of the depth and quality of a group which aspires to compete at the top end of the table this season.
Evatt admitted his own disappointment on Tuesday night, having failed to sign the forward player he had been seeking to finish off the transfer window.
[You must be registered and logged in to see this image.]
He was speaking after one of his nine signings – Dapo Afolayan, from West Ham on a three-year deal – had scored the winning goal against Port Vale in the Papa John’s Trophy, his third of the campaign.
The Bolton boss is probably a first of his kind at the club. Plugged into the social media generation, he keeps half an eye on the general mood of the fanbase and has plenty of folk around him who do likewise. Frustration at the lack of a new arrival was not lost on him.
Nor should concern at the depth of Evatt’s squad be dismissed. Through the spine of the side – Antoni Sarcevic, Eoin Doyle, MJ Williams, Ricardo Santos – there are players who would be extremely difficult to replace if they picked up an injury. Then again, is that not the same in any squad at this level?
The theory behind the current squad makeup was that each position would have two first team players competing for each spot, and a developmental player progressing in the background.
It cannot be argued that there are some spots which hit that target better than others. Doyle, for example, has no obvious facsimile. Rather Evatt has looked to pack his attacking ranks with versatile players, who can slot into any of the three front ‘prongs’ of the Bolton attack.
Ex-Sheffield Wednesday attacker Elias Kachunga has only started two cup games thus far but has featured in every one of the three positions. Likewise, Nathan Delfouneso has played either side of the central striker and dropped in as a supplementary ‘number 10’ against Port Vale.
Several reports had linked Bolton with Portsmouth’s Ellis Harrison towards the back end of deadline day – the former Bristol Rovers man falling more into the central striker category that many fans had clamoured to see.
It appears, however, that Bolton’s interest in the Welshman was fleeting. Another target, described by Evatt only as a “forward player” had been earmarked for several days, first appearing on a list of targets established by the manager and Markham in the summer.
When the latter informed Evatt that the deal was dead, moments after the final whistle against Vale, there was no thought to switch to a Plan B, nor knee-jerk reaction to see what else was out there in the remaining two hours of the window.
Whether that proves a correct call, only time will tell. It does, however, underline that nothing at Wanderers is done on the hoof any longer and that deadline days may not be the all-action affairs that they had been in the past.
That preference for stability can also be seen in the fact Wanderers retained more of their players from last season than any other club in League One. Keeping 79.7 per cent of their playing squad, the Whites were well ahead of their nearest rival in the division, Rotherham United, on 67.2 per cent.
Evatt chose to keep faith with those who got him promotion, and particularly the core squad who produced the remarkable turnaround in form from the end of January onward last season. Part of that decision rested in the familiarity existing players had with his style of football – an expansive, physically-demanding possession game which stood out a mile in the National League and League Two, but now looks quite in vogue against some of the more fashionable managers at this level.
[You must be registered and logged in to see this image.]
For pure entertainment, Bolton fans could hardly have picked a better time to come back to the terraces after 18 months away. For a good number of years, aesthetics have taken a backseat to necessity as the club battled against its financial position. Whatever your view of Evatt’s recruitment this summer, there can be little argument that the football offered by this team is as pleasing on the eye as any in the last decade.
The bigger question asked by the fanbase is one of ambition. Since their takeover, Football Ventures have been suitably selective in their communication, rarely wading into the emotive world of the fan and their club. The distanced approach has worked well, particularly in comparison to the daily rambling missives issued by their predecessor.
But in a division of increasingly larger budgets – dubbed by some as Championship 2.0 – there is a challenge for Bolton’s owners to show that their vision of sustainability can be married with success on the pitch, the demand for which will never disappear at a club of this size.
Only once in the club’s long history has it been stranded for any significant amount of time at this level of football, and that was through the dark and dingy eighties and early nineties at Burnden Park. Comparisons have already been drawn between the revival Wanderers undertook at the time under Phil Neal, the promotion from Division Four and the frustrating few years trying to nudge that extra level higher.
If football does move in historical cycles then this might be Wanderers’ 1989-1992 revisited, a time of cup success and cult heroes, of rebuilding and reflection. The difference being that at one side of the UniBol, we haven’t got a giant supermarket to help pay the bills, there is a mosaic featuring the names of supporters who dug deep during the pandemic to help keep the club stable.
It may still be that Bolton Wanderers are shopping for bargains while other clubs in this division are better equipped to stack their trolley sky-high. Fans can only hope Evatt and Co are shopping smarter than everyone else.
[You must be registered and logged in to see this link.]