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Why Bolton are rebuilding bridges to the first team for young talents

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse

Why Bolton are rebuilding bridges to the first team for young talents 13880911

Rising from the ashes of the failed ‘football restructure’ of 2020, Wanderers say they are ready to make success stories at their academy once again.

Tales from the pitches of Lostock have not had a happy ending of late.

Ever since the ‘Junior Whites’ stepped into the breach in August 2019, players who at one point looked to be the club’s future have suffered for their time in the spotlight.

Just Ronan Darcy remains from the team which drew 0-0 against future League One title-winners Coventry City, and even his pathway to regular football has come with the caveat that he had been played too soon and was not quite ready.

Bridging the distance between youth and senior football has been problematic since the academy was downgraded to category three two years ago, particularly as it involved dismantling a development squad that had been over-achieving under former Burnden Park winger David Lee.

The controversial restructure – announced and overseen by former head of football operations, Tobias Phoenix – eventually led to Lee’s departure, alongside other long-serving staff like Nicky Spooner, Gavin McCann and Brian Morris. By December 2020, its architect, Phoenix had also left Bolton.

Picking up the pieces and restoring order in the last couple of years has not been simple, being that the mission coincided with a global pandemic and a spell when the club’s focus was on short-term success at senior level.

Last year’s attempts to resurrect a reserve team in the Central League were semi-successful but the lack of resource was underlined late in the season as one of Bolton’s 16-year-old defenders was tasked with marking Burnley’s Ashley Barnes.

Once again, Wanderers were asking youngsters to play football they were not ready to play, and so an intervention was needed.

A handful – Max Conway, Arran Pettifer, Matt Tweedley, Mitch Henry – made the awkward leap to first team level last season to fill gaps for cup competitions. And just like the Junior Whites there were concerns about it happening too early.

Before his appointment as head of academy, Dave Gardiner was part of the coaching staff trying to prepare those young players for what was in store.

He had seen what was achieved by Darcy, Brockbank, Adam Senior et al, and what needed to be done to better prepare them for professional football.

“It was tough to send them out there, but I had to use it as a positive,” he told The Bolton News. “Players had to learn about resilience, the challenge, so when the Under-23s step was taken away, players were faced with a lot tougher task than they were used to.

“What it actually did was progressed players further than we thought they could possibly have gone.

“And it has also taught us lessons about what the structure needs to look like, going forward.

“At the time it was an unbelievable opportunity to be faced with at the time and they all embraced it with open arms, the coaching staff and players. It surprised everyone the journey they went on.

“Again, if you look at where they started compared to where they finished, it shows that when you are faced with a challenge you never know what you can achieve.

“They did make a massive step but now with the B Team, it makes that a little bit easier.”

The trials and tribulations of young players who had struggled to handle the demands of senior football over the last two seasons made it clear that another restructure was needed, one which will hopefully be more successful than the last.

Many thought that the introduction of a B Team would mean the end of academy football as we knew it. The reality is quite the opposite.

Wanderers considered upgrading to category two - which would have meant satisfying a number of criteria laid down by the Premier League's EPPP (Elite Player Performance Plan) within a short space of time. Had they moved into the Championship last season, that may have been the direction they took.

The more flexible option was to implement a B Team, complete with separate playing budget, staff and schedule.

Matt Craddock first met Gardiner on the Premier League’s head of coaching course and had spent six years at Preston North End before he came to Bolton last September.

He had previously worked at the Football Association, primarily in coach education and development, but this summer he has been promoted to manage a standalone team comprised of the club’s youngest professionals, scholars and an eclectic mix of players recruited by Chris Markham and his team.

The premise, the club maintain, is that inserting an extra level above the youth team will give coaches more time to ensure footballers are ready to take that step to senior level.

“We will be working with quite a range,” Craddock told The Bolton News.

“There are players already at the club, scholars who have earned themselves extra time for the job they have done. Apart from that we have looked in various ways, a recruitment trial week with players from all across the country.

“The people we are looking for are those who have been overlooked, at clubs where there is a void between the 18s and first team, perhaps they are not getting the opportunity their skillset would warrant. There are also 23s where people have fallen out of the game for various reasons.

“It is a wide variety and, to be honest, it is very exciting. I am looking at clips of the players and speaking with Chris about some of them and you can’t help but look forward to working with them.

“I think there will be a balance of players who are perhaps a little closer to the first team, who have a little experience or are a little older and need refining, but then there will be some, like second year scholars, who need support over a longer time.

“I want to create a competitive environment because last year when we took the reserve games we had some difficult weeks towards the end. There were 16-17-year-old lads competing way above where they were ready for.

“With this B Team we now have a good variety.”

Players will be able to move between the B Team and first team, and Ian Evatt will also be able to send senior professionals down for extra game time, if needed. First year pros can also drop down to play for the youth team, now led by former Wanderer Julian Darby.

More importantly, says Gardiner, players at every step of the academy will be taught the same style of football – the one being used by Evatt at first team level.

“That is something I really believe in,” he said. “Bolton has now got a really clear vision, from the board, the style of football Ian plays, and we embrace that. We want our academy to align with that vision.

“By using that playing style we can create a pathway for players and we have a clearer understanding of what each one of them should look like at each step of their development.

“If we can make sure that style is coached at every level, it should mean there is a better chance for more players to come through and represent Bolton Wanderers.”

The value of academy football has been debated among Wanderers fans, who point towards the relative few such as Zach Clough, Rob Holding, Regan Riley or Luca Connell who have commanded a significant profit in recent times.

This year it is likely that the academy will hit 100 players who have come through the system to play professional first team football in the UK, or abroad. More than half of those have been in a Wanderers shirt.

While some clubs have pursued the B Team route and dissolved their academy, Gardiner remains convinced that the system can work, provided each component works off the same instruction.

“I have to make sure there is a pathway and that we are maximising potential, so that one day we can get them out on the first team pitch,” he said.

“Everyone has their opinion, but the game is changing, it is evolving. The way we coach and organise things is changing as well.

“My job now is to show we have got these fantastic players and that we do want them to come all the way through. I think we have finally got that right now, and over the coming seasons we will see benefits of what we are doing.

“It is our aim to get players from the academy to the first team. That has to be the dream of every young footballer.

“There is nothing better than coming through to play for your own club.

“And we want our players at the academy to have that dream.”


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