A strong start to the 2030/31 campaign had Bolton Wanderers in the midst of a promotion battle at the mid-way point of the season. However, concerning defensive performances and an injury to star man – and, of course, Trotter Talent academy product – Solomon Suraka were causes for concern heading into 2031.
Add to that, Bolton had a really tough ask to begin the new year, facing all of the top six in the first two months. To start with was a second vs. top battle as leaders Nottingham Forest came to town on New Year’s Day. Heading into the game, five first-team players were injured, two needed fitness tests and one was half-fit, but had to play. And our lack of fitness showed as Forest dominated and eventually nicked it through Oscar Bobb in the 84th minute.
A trip to fifth-placed Norwich followed, who also dominated but only broke through in the 83rd minute with a ridiculous own-goal by Nana Martin. An unsurprising but unlucky loss came on a day that captain Nigel Turner made his 400th league appearance for Bolton! Still just 25, Turner is now 119 appearances behind the club’s all-time appearances record held by Eddie Hopkinson.
The tough start to the year continued at home to West Ham and it looked to be ending in more frustration. That was mainly thanks to striker Shemar Vanzie, who missed an incredible NINE chances, at least three of which were clear-cut one-on-ones. However, he finally tucked home his tenth chance to nick an injury-time winner. And that bizarrely earned him a 7.9!
Vanzie took confidence from that as he scored a hat-trick inside 34 minutes of the next game at home to Preston. The first of which was a strange one as the ball stopped on the corner flag for right-back Darragh Bonner to collect and cross! However, in this game he had a ridiculous 13 shots…
Our strike options were boosted by the arrival of an exciting young Brazilian in 18-year-old Guilherme at the end of January. He’d been released by Internacional, I brought him in on trial and my coaches reckon he will become a Premier League player.
Vanzie’s sudden inspired form led us to victory over another local rival at fourth-place Burnley. A beautiful dinked finish got things started on 36 minutes then a coolly finished second were enough for a 2-1 win. The big striker turned creator for academy product winger Ryan McCutcheon’s first goal for the club at Sheffield United but we somehow threw that away and lost 3-1.
Next up was new leaders Cardiff, although three teams were now tied on 60 points with us three back on 57. We made it even tighter as new boy Guilherme gave us plenty to get excited about with a debut goal after 23 minutes, finishing off a lovely move between Vanzie and the returning Suraka for a huge 1-0 win.
Facing the bottom half
We now had a run of eight games against teams in the bottom half. That started at Birmingham, who gave us a double whammy FM-ing as former midfielder Lewis Gordon scored with their first shot. We equalised through Jack Shaw but somehow didn’t win despite having 15 shots to six – of which Vanzie ridiculously missed 10! It’s baffling as he has 17 finishing and 14 composure… Suraka showed him how it’s done with the only goal at home to Rochdale and the same scoreline followed at Portsmouth as left-winger Erlend Skorpen headed home a Suraka corner three minutes after the break, which was his first goal in 11 games.
That meant we hadn’t scored more than once in five games, but a home game against Wayne Rooney’s struggling Rotherham offered an opportunity to buck that trend. And we delivered as Vanzie bagged a hat-trick and Guilherme scored twice in a 6-0 thumping. That massive win took us top of the Championship with 10 games remaining! That game saw us switch up the tactic to a 4-4-2. And it worked a treat again as Vanzie sealed consecutive hat-tricks in a 4-0 win at Swansea, with one created by starting strike partner Suraka and two late on by his replacement and fellow academy product Neal Vickers.
A draw with Charlton then a narrow 2-1 win at Peterborough, thanks to goals from Skorpen and Vanzie, and another 1-1 draw at home to Blackburn left us four points clear at the top going into the final six games of the season. And Vanzie’s form saw him win the Championship player and young player of the month awards for March.
Six games from glory
With six games remaining in the 2030/31 Championship campaign, a strong run of form had lifted Bolton to the top of the table. We were four points clear of Cardiff, who had a game in hand, five clear of Norwich and four ahead of Burnley and Blackpool.
Game 1 – Blackpool v Bolton: The season countdown began with a tough test at Bloomfield Road. However, we got off to a flyer as Suraka scored inside four minutes and his strike partner Vanzie doubled the tally 20 minutes later for a 2-0 win. However, a Guilherme was ruled out for the season with a broken foot. And that moved us eight points clear of third with five games to go.
Game 2 – Bolton v Sheffield Wednesday: Wednesday were safe in mid-table mediocrity in 15th and offered little in a first half we dominated. We eventually made it count as Skorpen finished off a superb flowing move on 67 minutes. Centre-back George Iordache picked up a second booking on 82 minutes but Wednesday mustered just two shots and we eased to a 1-0 win. That sealed a playoff place and moved us six clear of third, but Cardiff still had a game in hand.
Game 3 – Reading v Bolton: Reading had fallen off the playoff chase and were down in 11th. Another dull first half ended 0-0 and nothing happened until young attacker Rasmus Olesen, making his first start, went close after an hour. And nothing else happened in a 0-0 stalemate. That left us six point clear of third-place Cardiff with their game in hand and three clear of second-place Norwich, but ten points ahead of Watford.
Game 4 – Bolton v Wigan Athletic: A top vs. bottom clash followed against already relegated Wigan, who had just 27 points. We started on the front foot with seven shots in the first quarter of an hour before captain Nigel Turner fired home a 25-yarder for his first goal of the season after 20 minutes. David Roberts made a huge save five minutes after the break, which proved vital as right-winger Jakub Krob popped up with his third of the season five minutes later. Martin set up Skorpen to make it comfortable 10 minutes later before Vanzie bagged his 20th of the season. A convincing 4-0 win moved us six points clear of Cardiff.
Game 5 – QPR v Bolton: We were now on a 13-game unbeaten run, stretching back to early February, and the Premier League was tantalisingly close. We started superbly as Vanzie latched on to Sean Caldwell’s pass, beat three defenders and slammed home from the edge of the box on 5 minutes, then doubled his tally 10 minutes later. Two shots, two goals! The title was all but ours another 10 minutes later as Krob cut inside and steered home, only for QPR to go down the other end and get one back. After 27 minutes, there’d been seven shots and it was 1-3! But we restored the three-goal lead just before the break as centre-back Gil headed home Vanzie’s free-kick. Vanzie wrapped up another hat-trick on 69 minutes to seal a mad 5-2 win.
On the same day, Cardiff lost at Charlton. As a result… Bolton Wanderers were Champions of the SkyBet Championship and Promoted to the Premier League!!
Game 6 – Bolton v Derby County: The season ended with a promotion party at the Eddie Davies Arena, where we’d still only lost four times in two seasons. Fittingly, the game saw Jack Salter come back to Bolton for the first time since his £20 million move. And the boys had clearly spent the week celebrating as we conceded twice in two minutes to go into half-time 2-0 down. I threw some young kids on and Suraka got us back into it but the campaign ended with a 2-1 loss.
We finished the season on 91 points, which is the third-lowest title-winning tally on this save, two clear of Norwich and six ahead of Cardiff. We scored 77 goals, which was the fifth-most, and had the joint-best defence with just 42 conceded. Interestingly, we won the most tackles (1,170), made the most fouls (744), got the most bookings (84) and second-most red cards (3).
Vanzie’s 23 goals was third-most in the league, behind Burnley’s Aaron Connolly and Sheff Wed’s Gary Higgs, who both got 25. He also got the highest average rating in the league of 7.34. Roberts’ 21 clean sheets was the most in the league. This led to Vanzie winning the EFL Young Player of the Year, which Suraka won last year. While I won Manager of the Year and six of our players – Martin, Iordache, Bonner, Skorpen, Caldwell and Suraka – made the Championship Players’ Select.
The great end to the season saw the Bolton board offer me a new contract before the QPR game, which boosted my wages to £35,000-a-week, the same as our top-earning player Suraka – up from £23,500 – until 2034. I’ve also been instilled as a Bolton Wanderers icon by the fans.
Everton loanee Vanzie was the star man this season with 23 goals and six assists at an average rating of 7.34, including finishing the season with 12 goals in 11 games. Our second-best player was left-back Nana Martin, who got nine assists at an average rating of 7.15 from 45 appearances. Centre-back Gil and Suraka, who scored 16 and got seven assists, also performed well, as did Skorpen (13 goals and eight assists) and Caldwell (five goals and 12 assists). Pleasingly, Martin won the fans’ player of the season, Vanzie won young player, Krob got signing of the season and Shaw got goal of the season for a solo goal against Peterborough.
Trotters Talent update
Original Trotter Talent product Nigel Turner has racked up 416 league appearances since coming through the Bolton academy in the first season, with 24 goals and 37 assists. He struggled a little this season and is considered a League 1 talent, so may struggle to step up but we’ll keep him regardless. The key man we’re pinning all our hopes on is attacker Solomon Suraka, who has 28 goals in 115 league games and is still only 19.
The other star man from our academy has been left-back Nana Martin, who now has 208 league appearances and hopefully he can get by in the Premier League. Others who I hope can step up are goalkeeper David Roberts and right-back Darragh Bonner, who’ve both passed 100 league games for the club. While I’m excited about the immediate potential of centre-back Ajah Wray, winger Ryan McCutcheon and midfielder Peter Agnew, with several more prospects coming through the Under 18s. We had a poorer youth intake than recent years, but it still produced a decent talent in Huddersfield-born Bolton supporter (which is a little unusual) midfielder Luke Johnson.
A look around England
Man City won the Premier league by four points from United, with Liverpool down in eighth. Leeds, Newcastle and Stoke went down. Norwich and Burnley joined us in promotion with three Lancashire sides Preston, Rochdale and Wigan going down.
Huddersfield won League 1 with Bristol Rovers and, interestingly, Barnet getting promoted. Brentford, Millwall, Mansfield and Port Vale went down. MK Dons won League 2 and were promoted with Coventry, Exeter and Swindon, with Salford and Hartlepool dropping into non-league. Replacing them were two former league sides in Stockport and York, while Morecambe dropped out of the National League with Aldershot, Chorley and Gloucester. In their place came Solihull Moors, Gateshead, Bath City and Worthing, while Leamington, Chelmsford, Curzon Ashton, Stourbridge, Carshalton, Farnborough, Metropolitan Police and Cirencester Town dropped out of the system.
Chelsea won the FA Cup, beating United 4-2, and United beat Leicester 1-0 to win the Carabao Cup. City and United met in the Champions League Final, with City winning 3-0 with a brace from Rayan Cherki and elite winger Danilo Pisani. Liverpool won the Europa League, beating Atalanta 2-0.
Looking to the Future
This title win is the cap on our 11-year reign at Bolton Wanderers and takes the club into the Premier League for the first time since being relegated in 2012 – 19 years ago. Interestingly, only two of the team that won us League Two in 2021 are still active footballers, Billy Crellin and Peter Kioso. But plenty of work will be required if we are to stand any chance of remaining in the Premier League next season – which is a massive step up in quality.
Join us next time to discover how we go about rebuilding this Bolton squad for the Premier League!