Bolton Wanderers had a day to remember at Wembley as a win over local rivals Rochdale catapulted the club up to The Championship on the back of two consecutive promotions.
However, while celebrations were rightly in the air, there was a major concern that the club’s finances – or lack thereof – could leave us in a real spot of bother. Not least, taking an absolute battering in The Championship.
The move to a higher level of football saw 33-goal striker Nathan Delfouneso suddenly decide he wanted £15,000-a-week to stay at the club and hit-and-miss left-back Gethin Jones demand £5,000-a-week. Considering we were only spending £32,000-a-week on the entire squad at the end of the season, this wasn’t happening! That said, the board somehow decided I’d managed to repair the club’s financial damage one year ahead of schedule.
Despite their optimism, we were forced us into releasing any players whose contracts were up, whether we wanted to keep them or not (most I didn’t). Delfouneso and Jones left, Eoin Doyle retired and Ali Crawford signed a deal with Hamilton. A host of staff also departed and I set about strengthening the non-playing staff.
Given that all our goals had left the club, strikers were a massive priority. We got a deal over the line to snap up Swansea forward Liam Cullen on a free, then brought in Watford’s Ryan Cassidy – who I know very well from my Raith Rovers save on FM20 – on loan. And they’ll be supported by youngster Bright Amoateng.
We also relied on loan deals to bring in French midfielder Theo from Porto, Everton’s attacking midfielder Anthony Gordon and left-back Owen Beck from Liverpool, who admittedly doesn’t look great, and backup centre-back George Langston from Watford.
Do these signings improve the squad? Maybe slightly, but I think we probably have zero chance of staying up this season! However, the financial situation does force our hand to putting the focus on the “talent” aspect of the Trotters Talent save. That said, most of the youngsters we’re throwing into the first-team are considered to be playing at “League Two level.”
We began the season with only six players who were older than 21 and only two older than 23! 12 of our first-team squad are teenagers and one of those Nigel Turner, who came through our youth academy in the first season and is still only 16 but does have excellent leadership qualities, was the only realistic option to become the new club captain. This could go badly, but they’ll certainly never get a better chance to fulfil their potential! Below is the suad in full and the tactic we’re taking into the new season:
In comparison to our team of young nobodies, we’re up against the likes of Wilfried Zaha, Calvin Stengs and Joao Pedro and teams like Aston Villa, Cardiff, Crystal Palace, Swansea and Watford. Unsurprisingly, we are the firm favourites to get relegated at a cool 350/1 to win the league.
Facing up to the Championship challenge
Our first game back in the Championship was a home game against Middlesbrough, which turned out to be the exact opposite of what you expect from Middlesbrough. Just what we didn’t need was FM to do its usual trick of the opponent scoring their first shot. But it did. However, new boy Cassidy bagged a two-minute brace to put us ahead.
That optimism lasted three minutes, then Middlesbrough went absolutely mental to a race into a 2-6 lead. Oh boy… We managed to score twice in a minute through Cullen and Cassidy, who bagged a debut hat-trick but lost heavily. Middlesbrough were given a very dodgy penalty that Assombalonga converted for his own hat-trick. An opening day 7-4 battering at home. This looks like being a horrible season!
We also lost at home to Scunthorpe in the Carabao Cup, oh dear… But a tweak to the formation to add a holding midfielder in new loanee Lars Dendoncker from Brighton saw us rally to a 2-1 win at home to Luton. That man Cassidy was the two-goal hero, taking him to six goals in three games – and that led to him winning player of the month, young player of the month and goal of the month!
Our first away day was at Bristol Rovers, who hammered us with 15 shots to eight but we had Marcin Brzozowski to thank for his 11 saves and a penalty save that earned a 1-1 draw. We also got dominated at home to Barnsley, but my boy Cassidy stepped up with a brilliant brace from our mere four shots to their 21 for a true smash-and-grab 2-1 win.
We added to the squad on deadline day with two more loanees – after Gordon got recalled by Everton – in left-back Álvaro Fernández, who starts at Real Madrid but had moved to Man United, and right-back Luke Matheson from Wolves.
A big defeat at Birmingham then a 1-0 loss at Preston followed, then we got dominated again early on at Peterborough but Cassidy raced onto a long ball from Brzozowski to earn us a point. More points followed in an exciting 2-2 draw at home to Burnley, a strong 0-0 at Reading, in which we had two goals disallowed for offside and hit the post, and a 1-1 draw with Derby earned by homegrown product Turner’s first for the club.
Potentially the biggest win of the save so far saw us go to Nottingham Forest and defend like absolute heroes to see out 17 shots and 68% of possession then nick a win through you-know-who… Cassidy. We stuck with the defensive approach for a trip to Cardiff and it worked again, as we nicked two goals from just three shots with Cullen and Cassidy scoring just after the break to seal a 2-0 win. Unbelievable stuff!
We survived another battering (six shots to 19) to draw 1-1 with lowly Millwall, which took us to seven games unbeaten! That ended at a strong Watford side but we put in a magnificent effort to only lose 1-0 to their 24 shots, 22 corners and 61% possession. A clean sheet saw us earn another point at fifth-placed Bristol City, but defeats at Sheffield Wednesday and an annihilation by leaders Villa – in which we had one shot at home but somehow only lost 2-0 – brought us back down to earth.
Blackpool were somehow fourth in the league and we were on TV for a trip to Bloomfield Road. They were all over us for 70 minutes and led 1-0. But Amoateng, who’d gone 10 games without scoring, came off the bench and two counter attacks led by Cassidy teed up the young striker to bag a game-winning brace.
That took us into November 2022 with Bolton Wanderers, roundly expected to prop up The Championship table, sitting in 15th place. We have 22 points from 18 games and, after leaking seven on the opening day, we’d conceded 18 in the next 18 games. That said, we’ve only scored 20 all season, 12 of which are from loanee Cassidy, who’s the top scorer in the league. What a hero!
Join us next time to discover if Bolton Wanderers can continue to punch above their weight in the Championship or if the bottom three will drag us in.