Bolton Wanderers were performing well beyond expectations in their first year back in League One. The side predicted to finish 20th and battle relegation by the media was sitting in the playoff positions as the clock ticked over to 2022.
Goals were proving hard to come by as we relied on our two starting strikers and a solid defence in the first half of the campaign. But a key focus of this save is on bringing in our own talent, mainly due to the horrendous finances at the club. So it was key to start bringing through more of the exciting talent coming through the ranks.
We strengthened the defence with our only signing of the January transfer window, as former Bolton youngster Nathan Phillips – who’s currently playing for Liverpool in real life – signed on a free having been released by the Premier League side. That allowed us to move on George Taft and Liam Gordon for around £80,000 between them.
FA Cup run
2022 began with an FA Cup third round tie at National League side Yeovil Town on New Year’s Day, which was unusual. However, both Eoin Doyle and Nathan Delfouneso were injured, as were the next three backups! So youngster Ebube Onoja, the star of last year’s youth intake alongside Nigel Turner, made a very premature debut.
We went behind through a dubious looking penalty then Antoni Sarcevic scored one of our own, before Onaja raced on to a through ball and slotted home for a 35th-minute winner and a dream debut! And I’m hoping we’ve got a potential star on our hands.
That took us into the fourth round, where we drew fellow League One side Swindon Town, which turned out to be a cup classic. We looked to be heading out after trailing three times, but Delfouneso nicked a late equaliser then another young striker Bright Amoateng scored a 92nd-minute winner from a corner.
The reward for that was a massive draw away to Arsenal, which we unsurprisingly lost 3-0 and got battered by a substantially better team. However, it was better than our defeat to Chelsea last season!
Youngsters inspire strong form
Another young starlet, midfielder Regan Riley, stole the headlines in our first game of the year with an 88th-minute goal, also his first for the club, to nick a 1-0 win at Plymouth Argyle. And we gave our home fans something to cheer about with our first home game of the year on a dreadful rainy day, thumping Forest Green 4-1 led by a Delfouneso double.
The youngsters continued to shine as Onoja came off the bench to score his first league goal for the club in a 1-0 win over Bradford, then Dennis Politic scored twice as a makeshift striker as we breezed past Grimsby 3-0. And Onoja did it again, starting and scoring the only goal in a 1-0 win at fellow playoff chasers Coventry – but his goal came from a long ball by goalie Marcin Brazozowski, which marked his fourth assist of the season!
The good news on the youth front continued in our youth intake, which delivered on its “golden generation” promise with six players with at least 4-star potential and three with 5-stars. The pick of the bunch is versatile midfielder Trevor Weller, who looks like a real star in the making and is already our 8th-best midfielder. This intake means we now have 20 players in the Under 18s squad with 4.5- or 5-star potential. Exciting times!
Final six games
Two of the old boys shone as we smashed struggling Wycombe 4-0. Ali Crawford curled in a delicious free-kick then Delfouneso bagged twice to move on to 26 goals for the season. We bagged four again in a 4-1 win at Accrington, in which Delfouneso scored twice again, Crawford scored again and two more youngsters impressed as Riley and Markus Assarsson bagged assists. That lifted us up to fifth just two points behind third place – ridiculous! – and Delfouneso was now joint-top scorer in the league on 22.
We lost 3-1 at Swindon, with a Delfouneso equaliser followed by two Swindon goals in five minutes. Back on home ground, we conceded to the opponents’ first shot of the game for about the 300th time against Shrewsbury. But we came flying back with Ricardo Santos’ first goal of the season ten minutes before the break then Doyle and Delfouneso, which marked his 50th league goal for Bolton, scored in the first six minutes of the second half. And Amoateng came off the bench to add a late fourth.
Tight playoff race
That lifted us way up into fourth place ahead of a huge penultimate game of the season at Rochdale. We started brightly with Delfouneso hitting the post twice in the first 16 minutes and we had eight shots in the first 25 minutes. But Rochdale crept back into it and we were looking pretty equal through a goalless first-half. But they immediately took control after the break with two goals that killed us off. We were awful beyond the 20th minute.
That took us into the final day in fifth, but the batle for the playoffs was ridiculously tight. Rochdale’s win took them up to third on 70 points, but there was just one point between them, Oxford, us, Charlton, Ipswich and Lincoln down in eighth. So four teams of six could make the playoffs! We welcomed 17th-place Burton, Lincoln entertained Rochdale, Oxford went to 16th-place Gillingham, Charlton went to relegated Bradford, and Ipswich were at home to 21st-place Plymouth, who needed a win to avoid relegation.
We got off to a flyer as Riley bagged his second of the season with a fourth minute screamer. Darcy tested the keeper with a great free-kick, then Delfouneso rounded off a superb team move on 35 minutes and scored a sensational second to finish the game off. They got a late consolation but the win took us into the playoffs!
Delfouneso’s latest haul saw him break Doyle’s club record for goals in a season as he moved to 32. We finished fourth on 72 points, one behind Rochdale and two ahead of Oxford, but a long way behind runaway Derby and Peterborough.
League One playoffs
We took on Charlton Athletic in the playoffs, against whom we’d lost 2-1 away and drew 1-1 at home in the regular season. We went to The Valley first and guess what? Charlton scored with their first shot of the match through Martin Samuelsen. It’s getting to the point where I’m surprised if this doesn’t happen. And we lost 1-0 in a terrible match.
But we immediately improved in the second leg as Politic turned home a loose ball from a Delfouneso effort. And the striker forced a goal that put us ahead with a bizarre series of events that saw him shoot against the post, got to the rebound first and his cross was parried by the keeper onto defender Adam Matthews and into the net for an own goal! And that proved to be the decider, as Charlton racked up more shots but Brzozowski had a player of the match performance in goal to keep them out. Bolton were heading to Wembley!
Sarcevic dislocated his shoulder in that win but the 20-day wait between the semis and the final meant that Crawford was just about available for the big game. In it, we took on Rochdale, who beat Ipswich 3-2 twice and had already beaten us home and away.
In the least surprising thing ever, Rochdale took an early lead through their first shot. Seriously?!
However, we came flying back as Delfouneso tapped home from a superb cross from right-back Iestyn Hughes six minutes later. Then we were ahead two minutes later as Riley slammed home from 20 yards after lovely play by Politic. Delfouneso missed two huge one-on-one chances but we went in at the break 2-1 ahead.
He made up for that five minutes into the seconf half with a great run through the middle then a slide pass for Doyle to pass the ball home. And that was enough to seal a 3-1 win to send Bolton Wanderers into the SkyBet Championship!! What an achievement! Annoyingly though, there was no FM animation, which was a disappointment.
A team predicted to finish 20th in SkyBet League One had won promotion via the playoffs. I’m so proud, but also already scared at the prospect of taking on the Championship with our lack of finances!
Delfouneso finished the season with 33 goals in 49 games all competitions. He was the only player at the club to get an average rating above a 7, and came in way above everyone else at 7.32, alongside the most assists (9) and most player of the match awards (12), which earned him fans’ player of the season. He also won the League One top goalscorer with 27 goals, two more than Peterborough’s Ricky Jade-Jones, and Player of the Year awards. What a season for Delfouneso!
Other key players included Doyle, with 21 goals in 44 games, but I think we might let him go as, at 34, I don’t think he’ll cope in the Championship. Sarcevic also did well with six goals and seven assists but he’s massively inconsistent, while Darcy came up with five goals and six assists and Politic got four goals and six assists.
Riley won the fans’ young player of the season and Sarcevic won goal of the season for a strike in the 3-0 win at Lincoln.
What a season this has been! We’ve massively overachieved, which means next season is going to be so, so difficult to try and keep Bolton up. However, I am committed to continuing to bring through the young, homegrown Trotters Talent!
Join us next time to discover how we prepare for life in the SkyBet Championship in the third season of this save.