Bolton Wanderers had made a surprisingly decent start to life in the SkyBet Championship in 2022/23. The red hot relegation favourites were sitting firmly in mid-table at the start of November, some seven points clear of the drop zone after 18 games.
To put this in context, Ryan Cassidy and Luke Matheson have 4-star ability, which is considered operating at Championship level. Those are the only two players who are considered good enough to be playing in the Championship! Six of the starting 11 have 3-star ability, which translates into a good League 2 player. So this group is massively overachieving.
An exciting moment for the club saw homegrown talent and, ridiculously, club captain Nigel Turner get his first call-up to for England Under 18s. That preceded an important month of games against teams in the bottom. It began with a 0-0 draw against Brentford, then a huge trip to bottom of the league QPR, who had eight points from 19 games but just hired Chris Wilder. We tested our 3-5-2 formation, which worked a treat as we soaked up QPR’s efforts and Dennis Politic latched onto a long ball from goalkeeper Marcin Brzozowski to tuck home a late, pretty undeserved, winner.
Strangely, a three-week break wasn’t for the 2022 World Cup as games resumed on the day the winter showpiece began! That game was at home to Stoke and nothing happened until a 94th-minute counter ended up with Bright Amoateng, who teed up Ronan Darcy to smash home from 25 yards for another lucky 1-0 win. That’s three consecutive clean sheets and three wins out of four, after five games without a win.
Winter World Cup
While we were plodding along, the World Cup happened. Major exits at the group stage were Holland, Mexico and Uruguay, then Sweden beat Belgium, Colombia beat Brazil, and Germany beat Argentina in the second round. In the quarters, Spain thumped Denmark 5-0, France edged past Swrden 1-0, Germany beat Colombia 2-0, and a huge shock saw Greece beat England 1-0.
Greece fell to Spain 3-1 in the semis and France beat Germany 2-0. An exciting final saw France lead 1-0 at half-time through Varane, Rodrigo and Mariano put Spain ahead after 87 minutes, but France equalised through Martial on 91 minutes. But Spain had the last laugh by going down the other end and scoring a winner through Merino.
The good form ended at Swansea, then Boxing Day took us to Middlesbrough, who put seven past us on the opening day. It was looking scary when Chuba Akpom scored twice inside 19 minutes, then they won a penalty that Brzozowski saved it and Liam Cullen went down the other end to score with our first shot, only for them to add another late on. Our final home game of 2022 was at home to third-placed Crystal Palace. We went massively defensive and saw off 17 shots to our two to earn an excellent 0-0 draw.
A similar story saw Amoateng nick a 1-1 draw against Bristol Rovers then we ground out a 0-0 draw at in-form Barnsley. Then Cassidy’s first goal in 16 matches sealed a 1-1 at Luton. The striker took all sorts of confidence from that as he bagged twice in the first half at home to Birmingham, who laid siege after the break and pulled a goal back but Matheson scored his first for Bolton before Cassidy wrapped up his hat-trick to end six games without a win.
Another ridiculous defensive effort earned a 1-1 draw at sixth-placed Preston, then a Cassidy penalty edged us past struggling Peterborough. That took us to 40 points from 30 games ahead of several tough games, but we threw our defensive formation in to 0-0 draws against Reading and Derby – in which goalie Brzozowski earned his fifth player of the match performance – and only lost 1-0 to Burnley and Forest.
However, a run of five winless games teed up a huge clash at Millwall, who occupied the final relegation place. As usual, we were well and truly dominated by 15 shots to three but a Matheson cross was punched straight to Politic, who drilled home a 25-yard volley. That moved us onto 45 points, 11 clear of safety with 10 games to go.
It was lucky we had points on the board as we faced a tough run to finish the season. A defeat to Watford, who have six players earning more per week than our entire our squad combined was unsurprising, but another ridiculous defensive effort earned a 1-1 at Bristol City, who pummelled us with 20 shots to five. Cassidy scored again and Brzozowski earned another player of the match, what a season he’s having!
A malling at runaway leaders Villa was followed by a Lancashire derby on TV at Blackpool. Cullen had a goal ruled out early on, but soon notched just his fifth of the season to end a 13-hour goal drought. Cassidy won a dubious penalty that Cullen smashed home before Brzozowski scored a bizarre own goal. But we held on for a 2-1 win that took us to 50 points and near enough keeps us safe!
We got thumped at Brentford but went into a home game against QPR that was dubbed a “Survival Showdown” and selected for TV broadcast. QPR hit the post with a shot from the halfway line after five minutes but not a lot happened after until they got a dodgy penalty, which they scored and we lost 1-0. But, Millwall also lost – which confirmed our survival!
Bolton Wanderers survived in the Championship with a League 1 (at best) team!
We celebrated survival with a ridiculous 2-2 draw at Stoke, in which Cullen teed up Cassidy to score twice. However, we had four shots all game – one of which Politic should have scored in injury time – and Stoke had 33 and 18 on target, with Brzozowski making an outrageous 16 saves! That also broke the club record for most draws in a season, with 18.
Our final home game of the season was a 0-0 with Swansea that both sides could have nicked, but Brzozowski made a further 11 saves! We faced the impossible at Palace – for whom Zaha earns more than double our entire squad combined – on the final day but somehow managed another great 0-0 with holding midfielder Lars Dendoncker having a blinder.
We finished the season in 19th place on 53 points, 14 clear of the drop, with 11 wins, 20 draws and 15 defeats. However, 19th was the lowest we’d been since the 7-4 thumping by Middlesbrough, who got promoted scoring 100 goals. Cassidy was runner up in the Top Goalscorer award with 22 goals, only bettered by Akpom (23).
For what may be the first time in Football Manager history, goalkeeper Marcin Brzozowski won our fans’ player of the season and young player of the season awards and got the highest average rating at the club. He has been phenomenal this season. Brzozowski also held the most saves in the league (189), parried the sixth-most (50), kept the fifth-most clean sheets (17) and had the best save ratio (87%), the next closest to which was Nick Pope’s 82%. And he’s supposedly only a League 1 keeper!
Cassidy obviously led the way with 23 goals, although he only had an xG of 12.68 and had the best conversion rate in the league of 29%. The rest of the squad scored 16 between them! We moved early to secure him and right-back Matheson on loan again next season. Cullen got the most assists with seven, while young midfielders Turner – who’s progressed a lot in the last few months – Max Robson and Regan Riley didn’t get a single assist between them, which needs addressing – especially considering Brzozowski got three assists!
All of this was achieved spending £41,000-a-week on wages, which is three-times less than the next lowest – Peterborough’s £120,000. While Villa, Palace, Burnley and Watford were spending 20-times more with over £800,000 weekly wage spending. Madness!
On the youth front, another starlet appeared in 17-year-old Finnish striker Matias Makinen, who came through last year’s intake and has suddenly emerged as a 5-star potential talent. While this year’s intake produced exciting looking New Zealand centre-back Jack Salter. The board also boosted the youth academy to Category Two and improved youth recruitment to ‘Average’ at the end of the season, which is great news.
A look around England
Man City won the Premier League, continuing their trend of trading titles with Liverpool. Bournemouth, Sheffield United and Blackburn were relegated. Villa, Middlesbrough and Palace went up, while Millwall, Peterborough and Luton were relegated from the Championship.
Wycombe won League 1 and Portsmouth and Huddersfield joined them in promotion, with Grimsby, Fletwood, Accrington and Burton going down. Salford won League 2 and Exeter, Plymouth and Forest Green were promoted, with Yeovil and Stockport relegated. Southend won the National League with Wealdstone getting promioted to the Football League for the first time.
Join us next time as we look to solidify this survival success and move into a fourth season with Bolton Wanderers.