Bolton Wanderers’ young prospects were starting to respond to the faith we’d shown by throwing them into the first-team, in most cases extremely prematurely when they were still only considered to be playing at National League level.
2028 began with an FA Cup Third Round match on New Year’s Day. We were away to Colchester United and played terribly to draw 1-1. However, the return leg at Bolton was a proud day as academy product winger Solomon Suraka came off the bench to score on his debut and seal a 2-0 win. At the age of just 16 years and 162 days that made him the youngest goalscorer in Bolton history.
The same thing happened in the fourth round at top-half Premier League side Bournemouth as 16-year-old striker Sam Jones came in to give Ryan Cassidy a rest and scored 11 minutes into his debut. Ivor Mulders added a second as we secured a surprise 2-0 win. But the run ended with a 2-0 loss at Newcastle.
Around this time I also got offered an interview by West Ham, following interview offers from Southampton and Wolves towards the end of 2027. But I have no intention of leaving Bolton behind. West Ham hired Scott Parker, sacked him within three months and offered me another interview in mid-April!
Back into The Championship
Nearly as bad a performance followed as we drew 1-1 at bottom club Rochdale. However, the one bright point was Chinese starlet Liu Junyan getting his first-ever assist in the senior team. Shame the rest of the team didn’t turn up though. But we were much improved in a 3-2 loss to big-spending Norwich, who scored an injury-time winner.
Norwich’s big spending continued by signing our goalkeeper Roco Rees, whose contract was running down and wanted ridiculous wages. They bid £1.5 million and we managed to negotiate up to £6.5 million, which became the fourth-biggest sale in club history. That meant academy product David Roberts was thrust into being the club’s number one keeper way too early. However, the 18-year-old had a dreamy first game as first choice as he not only kept a clean sheet but also assisted the only goal of the game for Mark Parish. He’s also only conceded twice in four league appearances and has huge amounts of potential.
Two more young talents stepped up to nick a game at Barnsley that looked to be heading for a 0-0 stalemate. In the 88th minute, 18-year-old Lewis Gordon won a penalty that 17-year-old Liu Junyan stepped up and confidently tucked converted off the inside of the post for his first senior goal and a 1-0 win. Gordon then scored his first senior goal in an unlucky 3-1 defeat at Middlesbrough.
A more recognisable goalscorer stepped up to put us ahead at home to Charlton, only for terrible on-loan right-back David Long to immediately score a ridiculous own goal, then gave away a last minute penalty that Roberts saved to earn a 7.7 rating. And I’m never playing Long ever again. The striker then scored a brace with goals created by homegrown products Nigel Turner and Nana Martin to defeat Blackpool 2-0, which flanked huge beatings at Burnley (4-0) and Stoke (5-0), which made me reconsider away game tactics.
Martin bagged his first senior goal before a late Cassidy rescued a 3-2 win over Sunderland. Then two homegrown talents combined to defeat Ipswich, as Junyan played a delicious through ball for 19-year-old right-back Craig Chilton to score his first-ever goal.
Shaky end to the season
We then had a spell of three successive home games that it was crucial for us to win all of in order to keep our playoff hopes alive. It began with Jack Salter and Cassidy scoring in a 2-0 win over bottom of the league Brentford, before we hosted both Sheffield clubs within three days of each other and drew both games. That basically ended any outside hopes of reaching the playoffs again, as we sat six points behind sixth-place with six games remaining. And they firmly ended with defeat at promotion chasing Derby, as the season began to unravel in the last few weeks including a 5-3 defeat at home to Watford.
But we did manage to pick up a 3-0 win over Huddersfield, in which Salter scored and Martin and Chilton both got assists. And defeated playoff-chasing QPR 1-0 in our final home game, with Roberts winning player of the match with nine saves. We finished the season by “facing the impossible” at champions Crystal Palace, which we’d probably lose anyway so I threw loads of youngsters in. Four kids made their debuts and we unsurprisingly lost 3-0.
That ensured we finished firmly in mid-table in 13th position. We got 67 points, only scored 48 goals which was the joint-sixth lowest tally in the league – and conceded 54.
2027/28 Season Review
For a change, Cassidy wasn’t our star player, in fact he had his worst Bolton season despite still being our top scorer with 16 goals in 42 appearances. Instead, the main man was left-winger Mulders, who scored nine and led the assists chart with 11. Another star man was right-winger Parish, who scored nine and created five goals from 32 appearances, due to several injuries. Roberts also impressed with a 7.03 average rating.
Mulders won fans’ player of the season and young player of the season, as well as getting the most assists (11) and player of the match awards (4), and highest average rating (7.11), and Parish won goal of the season.
Trotter Talents round-up
As the main theme of this post suggests, these are really exciting times in terms of youth player development. We now have 22 permanent players with at least 4.5-star potential, so I thought now would be a good time for a brief round-up of our key Bolton academy product talents.
The most prominent player off the Bolton production line is Nigel Turner, who came through our very first youth intake in 2020/21 and made his debut in that season. Since then, he’s gone on to become our captain and make an impressive 292 league appearances, scoring 15 goals and getting 26 assists.
The two most exciting, established players so far have been vice-captain Jack Salter and Nana Martin. 21-year-old, 27-time New Zealand international centre-back Salter came through in 2022/23 and has made 111 league appearances. My coaches think he’ll become a Premier League quality player. Martin was the star of the 2023/24 intake and has made 82 league appearances. He’s really progressed this season, especially a solid run of good form from March onwards that included a player of the match performance at home to Huddersfield.
Other players who’ve stepped into the first-team and are showing potential include keeper David Roberts, right-back Darragh Bonner and centre-back/right-back Craig Chilton, who came through in 2024/25. Midfielder Lewis Gordon, who’s made great progress this season, defensive midfielder Derek Dowell, who’s still only 17, and left-back Lloyd Whalley, all came through in 2025/26 and look very exciting prospects.
However, the best intake yet has to be last season’s (2026/27). It produced 17-year-old attacking midfielder Liu Junyan, who made 26 first-team appearances this season and scored 34 in 40 for the Under 18s, and 16-year-old right-winger Solomon Suraka, who scored one in 15 for the first-team and 15 goals and 12 assists in 23 for the Under 18s. Yet to join them there are Ryan McCutcheon and midfielder Peter Agnew, who are suggested to have even more potential.
But another excellent youth intake this season could challenge that with at least four players of 4.5-star potential or better, which was proven by the Candidates team only losing 2-1 to a strong Under 18s side. The pick of the bunch are 15-year-old Scottish/Irish striker Arran Elliott, winger Peter Weal and left-footed centre-back Ajah Wray, along with midfielder Nick Hayward, Bolton-born centre-back Carl Greaves and goalkeeper Graham Hayden. Weal, Wray and Elliott are considered the best prospects at the club, along with McCutcheon and Agnew.
A look around England
Man United won a third straight Premier League title, while Spurs finished fifth despite having the two top scorers in the league and Everton qualified for Europe despite finishing 15th! Birmingham, Fulham and Blackburn were relegated.
Palace, Norwich and Burnley got promoted from the Championship, with Huddersfield, Barnsley and Brentford going down. Peterborough, Rotherham and Portsmouth replaced them, with York, Oldham, Crewe and Shrewsbury going down. Forest Green won League 2 and were joined in promotion by Barnet, Walsall and Wycombe, with Notts County and Morecambe dropping out of the league.
Leyton Orient and Accrington Stanley got promoted back into the league system, with Gloucester, Woking, Torquay and South Shields going down from the National League. They were replaced by Scarborough, Gateshead, Ebbsfleet and Havant & Waterlooville (who seem to have yo-yo’d a lot) while Oxford City, Alfreton, Bishop’s Stortford, Farsley, Tiverton, Staines Town, Poole Town and Harrow Borough were relegated.
Join us next time to see how these youngsters shape up in Bolton’s seventh season in the Championship and the final campaign to be played at the University of Bolton Stadium aka the Reebok Stadium.
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