Welcome to a brand new series now that the full version of Football Manager 2021 is live. Hoorah! This series is something that I reckon a lot of people will be taking on but, for me, it’s a very personal one.
As a long-suffering Bolton Wanderers fan in real life, I’ve avoided managing for the club on Football Manager for a long time. Partly because it’s depressing and partly because I’ve tried to avoid managing in England, especially now that Brexit is hitting. I’ve also not managed in ‘lower leagues’ for quite some time, so this promises to be a real challenge for me.
It’s safe to say that Bolton Wanderers has been through its fair-share of hard times. But it’s also had some pretty good times that fans of most clubs could only dream of. However, it’s pretty difficult to think that way given the events of the last few years.
Bolton was one of the founding members of the Football League in 1888 and, having been founded in 1874, will become one of the first clubs to celebrate 150 years of existence in 2024. Its best period of success was in the 1920s when it won three FA Cups and a fourth followed inspired by two goals from club legend Nat Lofthouse, who later became manager and president of the club, in 1958. Despite near 150 years of existence, Bolton have never been champions of England but do have five lower league titles to their name.
I was at Burnden Park when Bolton first sealed their place in the Premier League courtesy of a John McGinlay penalty against Preston. I was also at Wembley when we returned to the big time in a thrilling Championship play-off final win over Reading. However, I was also at the new Wembley when we lost 5-0 to Stoke in an FA Cup semi-final in 2011, which is just one of the steps that signified the rapid decline of the club.
But where things really started to go downhill was in a failure to back Sam Allardyce financially. Allardyce, a former Bolton centre-back, had led us to the Premier League and brought in the ‘Bolton Galacticos’ of Jay-Jay Okocha, Youri Djorkaeff, Fernando Hierro, Nicolas Anelka, Gary Speed and co. These players brought Bolton fans some great moments, such as goals from Kevin Nolan and Michael Ricketts sealing a win at Old Trafford, a goal from Super Kevin Davies knocking Bayern Munich out of the UEFA Cup (when Gary Megson was in charge), and regularly annoying the fuck out of Arsene Wenger and, in particular, Thierry Henry by beating and frustrating big teams.
However, we paid these guys massive salaries that the club couldn’t support when Allardyce eventually quit and a succession of poor managers took us to relegation in 2012.
A failure to clear a huge wage bill away from the Premier League and serious mismanagement saw the club rack up over £170 million of debt, which put the very future of Bolton Wanderers at serious risk. Several dates with the High Court followed and we just about survived, only to be taken over by a money-grabber of a new chairman. Despite former owner Eddie Davies clearing the debt owed to him shortly before he sadly died, even more mismanagement led to even more financial concerns and further relegations to where we are now – League Two.
Bolton objectives on FM21
Obviously, the aim is to bring Bolton back to the big-time, given the club has dropped to the fourth tier of English football for only the second time in its history. However, a key objective of this save for me is to focus on producing our own talent through the youth academy – hence the name Trotters Talent. That said, we only have adequate youth recruitment.
Just to add to the difficulty of the save, I’m also going to take control of scouting and training responsibilities, which I usually leave to my assistant manager. But, I want to get better at managing the whole process.
And, having sunk to new lows, Bolton had a new boss in fledgling manager Robí di Lathamé.
Club chairman Sharon Brittan approached me with her vision for the club’s future. These include signing players to sell for a profit and, as always, working within the wage budget. But an interesting future plan is to repair the club’s well-reputed financial damage by the end of next season (2021/22). They also want us to win promotion from League Two at the first time of asking, reach the FA Cup third round and Carabao Cup second round.
My first task as Bolton manager was to bring a club legend into the backroom staff, with John McGinlay joining as under 18s assistant manager.
Meet the Bolton squad
A key consideration when taking charge of Bolton is that the club signed 20 (twenty!) new players in the summer and let 19 leave. So there may be no cohesion at the club to start with and it’ll be tough to sell any players who aren’t any good. Even more concerning, is that our best young prospect Dennis Politic is out for a massive potential 17 months with damaged cruciate ligaments.
Weirdly, the club also doesn’t have a reserve squad, so we began with hundreds of players in the first-team squad.
My coaches reckon 34-year-old Alex Baptiste is the best player at the club ability-wise, which seems fairly baffling. But a player I’m excited about is central midfielder Antoni Sarcevic.
Other key players look like being attacking midfielder Ali Crawford, centre-back Ryan Delaney and striker Eoin Doyle, who I’m very much relying on for goals. Another player to keep an eye out for is 19-year-old Ronan Darcy, who has the highest potential in our squad and who I signed for Sporting on FM20.
We’re strongest at centre-back and in central midfield, so I’m thinking about starting out with several variations on a 3-5-2. I’m toying between a couple of tactics, one that has two strikers and another that has two attacking midfielders in behind a lone striker. But we shall see.
However, a key concern with Bolton Wanderers is the dreaded finances. The club has no obvious incomings and, really worryingly, is paying out £500,000 per month in loan repayments to the club chairman. That feels like a club breaker! Although we got some help towards that as Sunderland came in with £100,000 for Delaney, which we negotiated up to £300,000 plus extras – and that’s a good deal considering he’s only worth £73,000.
Add to that Nathan Delfouneso and Sarcevic picking up injuries before the start of the season, and this hasn’t been the easiest pre-season ever.
Join us next time as we get started in League Two and, in the meantime, I’ll try to figure out how scouting and training works!