Heading into 2029, Bolton Wanderers’ defensive approach was working nicely as they sat just outside the playoffs and into the fourth round of the FA Cup having knocked out a Premier League side.
The new year began with a game two days after that cup win over Wolves with a home league game against Swansea. And our team was knackered. We made a bright start through exciting academy product Liu Junyan but Swansea scored with pretty much their first and only attack and we struggled to a 1-1 draw. Just for evidence of our overachievement, Junyan is starting every game despite only being considered a League 1 standard player. And he’s considered the ninth best player at the club!
Next up was a Lancashire derby at home to Rochdale, which for some reason was on TV. And we put on an exciting, very misleading show for anyone who tuned in. Right-winger Mark Parish – who my assistant Freddie Ljungberg this we should drop – bagged a brace inside 23 minutes, before academy product midfielder Derek Dowell scored his first for the club with a screamer. “The new Alan Shearer” Simon Knox also bagged a brace before Parish completed his hat-trick in first-half injury-time. SIX-NIL up at half-time! Nothing happened after the break and we won 6-0. Classic FM. But that’s the biggest win of the save so far.
Several tough games followed with an exhausted squad, but we did superbly to nick a totally undeserved 2-2 draw at Bristol City. We then welcomed Fulham, who dominated us and won 2-0 but only made sure of it with a late penalty by Emile Smith-Rowe, who’s worth £37 million and earns £63,000-a-week – which is over half our entire weekly wage bill. We then faced leaders Derby who obviously scored with their first shot and I feared the worst, but we equalised with Knox on 23 minutes. However, right-back Craig Chilton somehow managed to get sent off the same minute then Knox got injured. I went very defensive and we held out until the 91st-minute. Heartbreaking.
We now had Junyan sidelined for eight weeks and Knox out for six weeks. But Solomon Suraka came in up front at Reading and put us ahead with his first league goal for the club after 36 minutes. He grazed the bar with two long-range strikes, then doubled his tally on the hour mark. They got back into it with a ridiculous penalty (Salter obviously won the ball!) but we held on for a 2-1 win. Suraka is looking like a serious prospect!
Can’t buy a goal let alone a win
The fixture schedule soon caught up with us as we lost 2-0 to Cardiff, drew 0-0 with Blackpool, Nottingham Forest and Portsmouth, lost 1-0 at QPR and got ripped apart 4-2 at Middlesbrough, who scored three goals from blocked shots rebounding to open goals. And that poor run of form basically ended our season as we were nine points off the playoffs with 10 games remaining.
A long goalscoring drought ended with a 1-1 against Sheffield Wednesday, who scored before having a shot thanks to Chilton’s own goal, then we came from behind and threw it away to draw 2-2 with Stoke. We somehow managed to go 2-0 up at Watford with our first three shots with strikes from Parish and Knox’s 20th of the season, but they battered us and came back to draw 2-2, which I’d absolutely take before kick-off.
That meant nine games without winning but we finally broke that duck with a 1-0 win at Charlton secured by Mulders’ second-minute header. Phew! That gave us confidence as two successive 3-0 wins over Peterborough, with goals from Ivor Mulders, Knox and a late third from substitute Junyan on his return from injury, then Ipswich through Knox, Lewis Gordon and Sean Caldwell’s first for the club. And out of nowhere we were six unbeaten and won three on the bounce without conceding!
We then had two away games, which started with a 2-1 loss at Birmingham then a tight 1-0 win at relegation-battling Rotherham.
Final-ever match at the Reebok
The season concluded with two home games, which would sign off Bolton Wanderers’ 32-year stay at the University of Bolton Stadium aka Macron Stadium aka Reebok Stadium. The penultimate game was a shocking 0-0 against Sunderland, in which both teams had four shots and one on target each.
And the final game at the Reebok Stadium was, fittingly, against local rivals Blackburn. I went for the Trotters Talent approach and picked eight academy products in the starting eleven of:
Roberts; Bonner, Salter, Iordache, Martin; Gordon, Turner; Suraka, Junyan, Mulders; Knox
Another poor first half followed, in which the only highlight was a Suraka disallowed goal. But we were easily the better team and went ahead through Nana Martin’s long-range strike. I made three late subs to ensure we had 11 Bolton academy players on the pitch for the first time to finish the campaign. And Martin’s strike was enough to send this great stadium off with a win.
Our strong end to the campaign ensured we finished an impressive ninth in the Championship with 72 points, which is our second-best tally after the playoff campaign of two seasons ago. We also had the best defence in the league, conceding just 38 times – which is our best defensive effort of the entire save so far. And we scored 59, which was eight more than last season, giving us the league’s fifth-best goal difference of 21. Our former loanee Ryan Cassidy was the top scorer in the league with 26 goals in 41 games for Watford.
Cassidy’s replacement Knox was our top scorer with 23 goals, of which 22 were in the league. Parish also did well with 13 goals, then Mulders with seven. But the next best goal tally was a paltry three, scored by Junyan and Nigel Turner. Goals across the pitch are something we really need to work on rather than relying on our striker.
Mulders led the way with nine assists, followed by Parish with seven, then Lewis Gordon and Turner with six. Mulders had the best average rating of 7.15, followed by Knox on 7.11, parish on 7.04, and impressive centre-back loanee George Iordache. Mulders also won the fans’ player of the season and young player of the season for the second year in a row.
Trotter Talents update
The key focus of this save is, of course, on our youth products and we definitely took a major step forward on that front this season. Turner is now on 338 league appearances for Bolton, which is less than 200 shy of the club record 519. While Jack Salter now has 158 appearances and Nana Martin has 120.
Some of their younger counterparts have also made great progress, including David Roberts and Gordon, who both got called up to the Under 20 World Cup with England, as well as Suraka, Dowell and Junyan, while the likes of Peter Agnew, Arran Elliott, Peter Weal are pushing for first-team places. And we regularly have seven or eight academy products in our starting lineup, so the future is very much exciting for Bolton Wanderers fans!
We also had another good youth intake, of which the pick were two exciting strikers in Bolton-born Fraser Ainsworth and the brilliantly named Perry Pickles.
A look around England
Man City ended United’s streak of three titles in a row, with United in second, Chelsea third, Spurs fourth and Liverpool fifth. Shocker. Palace, Villa and Burnley were relegated. Middlesbrough won the Championship, Derby got promoted and Fulham won the playoffs. Portsmouth, Peterborough and Ipswich went down.
Brentford won League 1 with Huddersfield and Preston promoted, while Lincoln, Wimbledon, Millwall and Walsall went down. Barnet and Forest Green did well to finish just outside the League 1 playoffs. Luton won League 2 with Leyton Orient, Chesterfield and Crewe getting promoted, and Bradford and Tranmere dropped out of the Football League.
Stockport and Chester replaced them, with Gateshead, Worthing, Scarborough and Fylde going down. Replacing them are Spennymoor, Solihull Moors, , and , with Chelmsford, Stalybridge Celtic, Brackley, Chesham, Leatherhead, Kings Langley, Tonbridge Angels and Whitehawk dropping out of the pyramid.
Liverpool won the FA Cup 2-1 against Chelsea and Man United won the Carabao Cup 2-0 against Arsenal. Weirdly, the losers of those finals succeeded in Europe. Chelsea beat Juventus 3-0 in the Champions League Final and Arsenal won the Europa League Final, which has been won by English teams in seven of the ten seasons in this save.
Join us next time as we move into the tenth season of the save and a first campaign in the brand new stadium!