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Can Bolton Wanderers learn from promotion blueprint of 2017?

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse

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What makes a promotion-winning team? And if Wanderers intend to escape League One, can they learn anything from the last time they managed it?

Phil Parkinson’s success in 2016/17 was almost certainly overshadowed by the financial nightmare that was to unfold over the next two seasons, in fact, given the circumstances, staying in the Championship 12 months later was arguably the bigger achievement.

Bolton were the big fish in League One at the time, and though Sheffield United had become entangled as a third-tier club, there was no sign of the financial disparity which has separated the division completely in recent years.

Whilst it is entirely fair to say the Whites were expected to go up that year, and that they were firmly in the ‘have’ column, rather than the ‘have not,’ Parkinson did have to contend with a volatile boardroom and a murky set of transfer restrictions never fully explained or clarified.

Ian Evatt attempts to tread the same promotion path this season with the modern-day club in a much more secure and stable position.

Using last term’s play-off defeat against Barnsley as a yardstick, Evatt is confident he can address any weaknesses in his squad to make sure they go a step further this time around.

Can we compare the two teams and managers and draw any conclusions on where improvements must be made? We broke down the argument into key areas.

Man in charge

By the time he was appointed as Bolton’s manager in the summer of 2016, Phil Parkinson had spent 13 years in the dugout at Colchester, Hull, Charlton and Bradford City.

His preferred style of football was practical with heavy emphasis on set pieces, particularly in that first season. While his approach had its shortcomings, especially in the Championship, few could argue their effectiveness as the club looked to get out of League One.

Evatt does not have the same depth of experience but can point to a managerial record which has seen improvement over each one of the five seasons he has been with Barrow and Bolton, plus the Papa Johns Trophy win last season.

Whereas Parkinson regularly struggled to please the purists, Evatt’s preference for a modern, expansive style of football often has the more traditional Bolton fan calling for something more straightforward.

Whilst still a young manager, Evatt has an unshakable faith in his own ability as a coach and in the style of football his team plays.

Financial backing

Wanderers went into the 2016/17 season with the division’s highest budget of more than £12million – some 25 per cent higher than Sheffield United in second place. And a good portion of that came in the form of legacy contracts.

Bolton carried into the season several players who were still earning high-end Championship money and though efforts were made to curb costs, the club was still given permission by the EFL to sign new players as free agents despite being under special measures.

Whereas the league is now able to publicly report embargoes, rule breaches and the like, back then Wanderers regularly found themselves dipping in and out of the restrictions with no form of confirmation from the powers that be.

The Boardroom was a war zone throughout. And it was with that uncertainly that Parkinson entered into the season, 24 hours before his first game against Sheffield United, not knowing whether any of his new players would be registered in time to play.

Evatt has had to contend with some difficult times, particularly rebuilding a squad in a pandemic, but his situation at present is positively idyllic in comparison.

Given a boosted transfer kitty this season thanks to a successful bond scheme launched by the owners, Football Ventures, he has already spent a six-figure fee on Dan Nlundulu and had cash bids for two other players.

Defensive strength

Excluding the play-off semi-finals Wanderers conceded 36 goals last season, matching the achievements of Parkinson’s team when they secured automatic promotion.

Considering injuries to centre-backs Eoin Toal, Ricardo Santos and Gethin Jones in the closing weeks of the season and Jack Iredale’s absence from January onwards, that was no mean feat.

Work had been done on team shape, and Evatt wanted his players to work harder out of possession. The net result was the best ‘press’ in League One, which reflected well not only on keeper James Trafford and his defence, but the team’s work-rate as a whole.

Parkinson’s approach was less holistic. He banked on an experienced back line which remained relatively settled throughout, particularly in the middle where Mark Beevers and David Wheater had created a formidable partnership. Jay Spearing’s skill as a screening midfielder was also a big part of the team’s defensive strength.

The supply line

Wanderers relied heavily on their right-sided partnership of Liverpool loanee Conor Bradley and centre-half Gethin Jones, who combined for 11 direct assists last season.

Aaron Morley created more chances (68) than any other Bolton player, based largely on his set pieces, but one regular criticism of the team was that they lacked an incisive edge against opponents who sat deep.

Evatt is looking to address such problems this summer and following the release of Kieran Lee looks to be in need of an attack-minded midfielder who can unlock defences.

Parkinson’s team scored five more goals over the course of 2016/17 but lost their most creative force early on when Mark Davies succumbed to a knee injury.

By January Bolton had also lost Zach Clough’s ingenuity when he was sold to Nottingham Forest. But the addition of free agent Filipe Morais proved a masterstroke, the winger knitting perfectly into Parkinson’s favoured 4-2-3-1 to finish the season with seven assists.

Goal threat

Dion Charles scored 21 times last season, the highest individual total for a Bolton player in more than two decades, but the supporting cast will probably need to provide more if the club is to challenge for an automatic promotion spot.

The big question is: Can Evatt get more goals out of the players he already has at his disposal, or do the club need to invest?

Jon Dadi Bodvarsson’s return of eight goals in 24 appearances was solid, at least before an ankle injury ended his season in January. And much more will be expected of Victor Adeboyejo, who never quite caught fire in the way he had at Burton following his January move.

Back in 2016/17 the goals really were spread around. Josh Vela, David Wheater, Zach Clough and Gary Madine finished up with nine apiece to share the top league goalscorer mantle – although Vela and Madine did sneak into double figures by virtue of the cup competitions.


According to, Bolton’s average age during the 2016/17 season was 26.7 years, whereas last season it was 25.5. Indeed, the team that beat Southend United 1-0 at Roots Hall with a memorable last-minute Mark Beevers goal in April 2017 was the oldest average age of a Bolton team on record at 29.1 years.

Given the high-energy football Evatt’s team is being asked to play, it seems unlikely he will target too many players at the latter end of their playing career. Kieran Lee’s release does drop the average age down, and perhaps leaves a slot open for some midfield experience in a very young group.

Whether this team is ‘streetwise’ enough to cope with the high-pressure games, such as the Barnsley play-offs, remains a topic of hot debate among supporters.


Sheffield United had been trying to escape League One for five years before they finally managed it as champions, ahead of Bolton.

Scunthorpe United pushed the boat out, unsuccessfully, to be rivals for the second promotion spot, and the likes of Bradford, Fleetwood and Millwall – who won the play-offs – all did so with relatively mild spending power.

This season Derby County look like the club with deepest pockets, although it remains to be seen whether Wigan Athletic – already hamstrung by an eight-point penalty – look to repeat their big spending of 2021/22.

Portsmouth, Charlton, Wycombe, Reading, Oxford and Peterborough all have promotion aspirations but this does look as wide open a promotion fight as there has been in some time.

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