The new era at Bolton Wanderers had seen the club remain unbeaten at their new Eddie Davies Arena home through the first half of the 2029/30 campaign. And they were right up in the mix for the promotion and playoff places despite selling off some of their most exciting Trotter Talents at the start of the season.
The new decade began with a home game against Birmingham City on New Year’s Day, which just so happened to be my 500th match in charge of Bolton Wanderers. And the first game of the 2030s was a dreadful 0-0.
The next day, we completed the free transfer of 19-year-old Rosenborg midfielder Erlend Skorpen, who I can’t decide if we should train as a central midfielder or a left winger, but looks like an exciting prospect. However, he scored on his debut against Preston in the FA Cup third round, which a fully rotated side lost 2-1.
Our good form continued at local rivals Blackburn Rovers, who scored a ridiculous own goal early on then equalised inside 30 seconds of the second half. But 19-year-old Sean Caldwell – who’s been impressive since moving into a central midfield role and has become a ‘Wonderkid’ – stepped up to nick it. An even better performance against local rivals saw us beat Blackpool 4-2, despite being down to 10 men from the 40th minute, inspired by a brilliant Knox hat-trick.
The good run came to an end with a defeat at Sheffield Wednesday. But we bounced back at home to their Yorkshire rivals Huddersfield, who took an early lead with their first shot (of course). But a goal from striker Simon Knox on the verge of half-time then a header from a corner by massive 6ft 6in centre-back Gil edged us through 2-1. The same pattern followed as we lost at Watford then beat QPR 2-0 with a goal and assist by the ever-improving academy product winger Solomon Suraka. He attracted praise from Wayne Rooney, whose side we visited next and beat 2-1 with Skorpen’s first league goal and a second from substitute Mark Parish.
We finally lost our unbeaten record at the Eddie Davies Arena as Stoke came to town and – guess what? – scored with their first shot and won 1-0. Then we somehow got a 2-2 draw at Bristol City despite them having 22 shots to our six – two of which came in injury-time… We again conceded a first shot on target (why does this keep happening?) but came firing back through Nigel Turner, who’s been pretty terrible recently, a beautiful Suraka chip and Skorpen again.
Suraka scored his 10th of the season, which is easily the best tally by any of our youth products so far, in a strong start at home to Burnley. Knox doubled the lead five minutes later and Skorpen continued his fine start to finish off a superb 3-0 win. Suraka had another blinder… and he was scouted by Paris Saint-Germain boss Thomas Tuchel in this game!!
However, we then got ripped apart in a 3-0 loss at leaders Aston Villa, which makes me wonder if there’s even any point in trying to get promoted? But our former loanee Álvaro Fernandez scored his first Villa goal and only his second goal ever in 231 matches in this match – which shows how ridiculous the ‘scores against former club’ feature is on FM21.
Exciting Season Conclusion
With eight games remaining, we were still third in the Championship, five points behind Palace, three ahead of fourth-place Cardiff, and 11 clear of Bristol City in seventh.
The season countdown began with a strange 0-0 at home to Preston, in which both sides had 15 shots. Another tight game saw us sneak past Sheffield United 1-0 away, no thanks to Turner missing two penalties (yet somehow still played a 7.0…). Turner continued his uptick in form by opening the scoring at home to Charlton, then a Knox brace and another from Skorpen secured a playoff place with four games remaining.
An unlucky 3-1 loss at Cardiff (who scored with their first shot – this is getting ridiculous) occurred on the same day as Palace also lost again, which saw us just four points away from automatic promotion with four games remaining. But any chance of that were dashed by a terrible performance as we drew 1-1 with Rochdale then a great effort in holding Palace to a 0-0.
We built on that with a 1-0 win at Swansea thanks to yet another Knox goal, while Palace drew with champions Villa. That left us one point back from them and Cardiff a further point behind us going into the final day. However, Knox, who won the April player of the month, picked up a two-week injury.
Final day decider
We were away to relegated Sunderland, Palace were at home to 19th-place Preston, and Cardiff were at home to 16th-place Burnley. We got off to a flyer as Caldwell smashed home from a corner after 10 minutes, but Palace scored in the first minute and Cardiff scored after 13 minutes. Sunderland equalised with their first shot on target after dreadful marking from a free-kick, but Suraka -playing up front in Knox’s absence – won a penalty that Skorpen converted. It finished 2-1 after a poor second half, and Palace and Cardiff both won.
That ensured we finished in a massively overachieving third place, which is by far and away our best season yet. We finished on 87 points, which is our best tally since the League 2 winning total of 97 in the first season nine years ago. Our goals total dropped off in the second half of the season, finishing with a sixth-best 75 goals – which was 16 more than last season and easily our best tally in the Championship so far – and the third-best defence with just 43 conceded – which was five more than last season.
Knox was the runner-up in the Championship top goalscorer with 24 goals. Suraka had the league’s third-highest average rating of 7.25 from 42 appearance (of which four were as a sub) and got the second-most playr of the match awards with eight. And David Roberts got the third-most clean sheets with 17.
Into the Playoffs!
Our opponent in the Playoffs was Reading, who we’d beaten in our last four meetings and were unbeaten against in 10 games, having previously not beaten them in our first seven!
Nothing happened in a terrible first leg 0-0 at Reading. Knox returned from injury for the home leg but Skorpen pulled a back muscle and missed it, which saw the out-of-form Ivor Mulders come in. The left-winger went close on 12 minutes before Knox was denied 10 minutes later. Gil headed us ahead after 33 minutes only for Reading to immediately equalise. Nothing happened in the second half or in extra-time, which took us to the lottery of penalties. Suraka missed our second penalty, then Roberts saved their third and fourth kicks. That gave Mulders the chance to be a hero…. and he smashed it home! We were heading to Wembley again! The game also set a new gate receipts record of £1 million.
Our opponents in the final were Stoke. And trust me, Bolton v Stoke at Wembley is not a happy memory for any Bolton fan. Stoke were 11/10 favourites and we were 9/4 outsiders. Furthermore, we beat Stoke the first time we played them in 2022 but haven’t in the subsequent 11 meetings! Stoke had a deadly regen strikeforce of Liam Corbett and Renan, and Skorpen was fit again but I left him on the bench and named the same starting 11 of:
Roberts; Bonner, Gil, Iordache, Martin; Reed-Sorinola; Caldwell, Turner; Suraka, Mulders; Knox.
Nothing happened in a first half of zero highlights, although we had seven shots with none on target and Stoke had no shots at all but five yellow cards! But they had their first shot on 50 minutes and – guess what? – Corbett scored. Our first highlight came on 82 minutes as Mulders’ shot was turned wide. And we suffered the ultimate FM-ing at the most inopportune time. Another year in the Championship awaits.
18-year-old Suraka won fans’ player of the season and young player of the season after getting the most assists, best average rating and most player of the match awards. The winger also won the EFL Young Player of the Year award! He’s looking like an amazing prospect and, to keep him at the club, we gave him a new contract that tripled his wages to £35,000-per-week until 2034.
Trotter Talents update
Despite selling three of our best youth academy prospects at the start of the season, we’re seeing great progression from several youngsters. But let’s look at the ones that departed. Jack Salter played 32 Premier League games at a 6.62 average rating with no goals or assists as Derby finished bottom on 22 points and conceded 75 goals – not great. Lewis Gordon played 31 games for Birmingham, scoring four and getting two assists with a 6.9 average – not bad. Liu Junyan scored two and got 12 assists as Brentford got relegated – a bit of a waste of £20 million but he played OK. So I think we very much got the best of these deals.
The main Trotter Talents this season have been Solomon Suraka, who scored 10 and got 13 assists at an average rating of 7.23, and David Roberts, who just signed a new contract and has been labelled “the next Aaron Ramsdale” (who is 32, has 111 England caps and plays for Spurs). Left-back Nana Martin was solid and particularly impressed towards the end of the season and right-back Darragh Bonner has gradually improved throughout the season. Nigel Turner has moved on to 377 league appearances but has been a little disappointing this season.
We also got yet another great youth intake with at least six players with 4-star potential or better. The picks of the new intake are midfielders Jordan Bruce and Ray Johnston, who are immediately considered the best prospects at the club. Other exciting prospects are brilliantly named Swedish goalkeeper Ebenezer Adu and American striker Liam Thomas. So the future remains very exciting at Bolton Wanderers.
Not getting promoted and losing a second Championship Playoff Final was obviously a disappointment but I do think it’s a blessing in disguise to not get promoted yet. This group of players is massively punhcing above its weight at Championship level, let alone competing in the Premier League! And this gives us a chance to further develop our exciting youth prospects in the first-team.
A look around England
Man United won their fourth title in the last five years, with West Ham, Norwich and Derby going down. Villa, Palace and Stoke went up with Brentford, Huddersfield and Sunderland getting relegated.
Peterborough won League 1 and were joined in promotion by Wigan and Portsmouth, while Coventry, MK Dons, Chesterfield and Notts County went down. Port Vale won League 2 and Millwall, Fleetwood and our feeder team Oldham got promoted, while York and Stockport dropped out of the Football League. They were replaced by Boston and Tranmere, with Bath, Solihull Moors, Barrow and Kingstonian going down.
Scarborough – who had two of our players on loan – went up to the National League with Chorley, Sutton and Gloucester. Witton, Coalville, Needham, Redditch, Slough, Dartford, Oxford City and Basingstoke all dropped out of the playable leagues. Former league sides Torquay and Kidderminster only narrowly avoided doing so.
Join us next time to see how we recover from the playoff heartbreak and rebuild for a ninth season in the Championship!