After nine years in the Championship and 11 years in charge of Bolton Wanderers, we’d led the club back to the Premier League as Champions in 2031. Now we had a huge task on our hands to strengthen the squad for a relegation battle.
The summer began by turning the loan of centre-back Gil into a permanent move. The 21-year-old signed for £7.5 million, which is by far and away the most we’ve spent on any player so far. I’d decided to switch back to a 4-3-3 with a holding midfielder for the step up to this level, so loaned in a step-up in quality in defensive midfield in Leicester’s Sergio Ayetz. George Iordache joined Lazio and Everton refused to do a deal for Shemar Vanzie, so we renewed a loan deal for Arsenal midfielder Jack Shaw. And we bolstered our attack by loaning PSG wonderkid Cristian Constantin, who cost the French side £6.25 million 12 months ago.
We’re the overwhelming favourites to get relegated and are 1000/1 to win the league, and luckily the board want us to fight bravely against relegation. We also have by far the lowest spending in the league, with our £18.5 million per annum salary dwarfed by next-lowest Burnley’s £47.7 million. The highest is Chelsea’s outrageous £272 million.
However, a key element is that I want to retain the ongoing focus on our Trotter Talents. Good news was that the step up to the top tier saw us given an Under 23 squad, which gives our youngsters more chances to play more competitive games. That said, our 24-man first-team squad contains 16 players that came through the Bolton academy, captain Nigel Turner is our oldest player at 25 and 15 players are aged under 21. Here’s how I’m looking at lining the team up for the Premier League.
Into the Premier League
Our first taste of life back in the big time was at home to Brighton & Hove Albion. Solomon Suraka was injured and we didn’t have a right-back available, which saw 17-year-old James Lovatt handed a debut. We started well as Jakub Krob put us ahead only for Brighton to equalise on half-time. But Erlend Skorpen put us back ahead two minutes after the break and 19-year-old centre-back Ajah Wray scored his first senior goal from a corner. They pulled one back but we held firm for a 3-2 win!
One of the biggest changes in the step up was the dreaded introduction of VAR and it reared its ugly head as we went to Aston Villa, who werre given a very dodgy penalty. We levelled through a bizarre Sean Caldwell goal that earned a respectable 1-1 – but had 15 shots to their nine, which was promising. Injury worries racked up as goalkeeper David Roberts picked up a knock before game three at home to Crystal Palace. That meant fellow academy product Graham Hayden made his league debut and performed heroics, playing a 7.0 and keeping a clean sheet as Skorpen earned a massive three points despite having just 37% possession.
A first trip to Old Trafford to face local rivals Manchester United in 20 years followed. In the 11 years since this save began, United have spent £2 billion on their squad compared to our £10 million. They had the likes of Donnarumma, Greenwood, Kulusevski, Rashford and superstar regen striker Leo Bustos. United absolutely battered us and somehow only won 3-0 despite 35 shots to four and Krob being dubiously sent off on the verge of half-time.
Strong home form is vital
The strong home form continued against Bournemouth. Skorpen won and missed a penalty but we stayed on the front foot and Suraka scored his first Premier League goal on 36 minutes. We were easily the better team and eventually sealed the win as Guilherme came off the bench for his first top tier goal. Another home game followed as Wolves came to town and this time Suraka won a penalty that Skorpen converted on 17 minutes. We dominated and Wolves only had one shot in the first half, livened up after it but a player of the match performance (eight saves, 7.6 rating) by goalkeeper David Roberts won us another home match! That was the Friday night game and shot us up to second in the Premier League!! (But four of our six games have been at home, so that will obviously change quickly.)
Next was a trip to Tottenham, who still had 38-year-old Harry Kane amongst their ranks! But we got a flyer as a brilliant run by Constantin ended up with him sliding Suraka in for the opener on 10 minutes. Spurs equalised swiftly but a miraculous defensive effort saw off the rest of their 22 shots to earn a point. Elsewhere, Burnley beat Liverpool, who are just two points above the relegation zone! Two more good defensive efforts saw us only lose 1-0 at a strong second-placed Everton side then beat Fulham by the same scoreline thanks to Guilherme’s first half goal. And Roberts went three goals without conceding as we drew 0-0 with Middlesbrough.
We were slightly unlucky to lose at Burnley then fell behind at Southampton to their first shot after six minutes. But we remained resilient, dominated the game and captain Turner stepped up. He hit a brilliant long range strike to equalise after 10 minutes then slid a lovely ball through for Guilherme to score a 72nd-minute winner for our first away win back in the Premier League.
We got absolutely robbed by Leicester as we lost our first home game of the season 2-1, which was decided by a pathetic penalty award but the main talking point was a Suraka wondergoal, which won goal of the month. Both teams scored with their first shots as we hosted Norwich, who equalised with a penalty awarded for Skorpen, who’d scored our opener, winning the ball – these decisions are just bizarre.
A difficult December
We’d started the season amazingly well, sitting seventh on 22 points after 14 games – more than halfway to survival. But an awful-looking December saw us face Chelsea and trips to Man City, Arsenal and Liverpool! First up, City hammered us but only led 1-0 coming up to the break, when Turner collected a second booking. They scored straight after the break but Constantin went down the other end and finally got his first Bolton goal. Another disgraceful refereeing performance also saw two penalties turned down by VAR, but we held City to just a 4-1 loss after 31 shots to one. Three days later we had to travel to Arsenal missing six first-choice starters, and got dominated but only lost 2-0.
The tough fixtures increased the importance of a home game against West Brom. And the boys stepped up to win 1-0 with Constantin tapping home after Suraka’s shot was parried, despite having just 40% possession. A strange 13-day break was followed by two games in three days – got to love that planning.
First was a Boxing Day clash with Chelsea, who still had Havertz, Rodrygo, Vinicius Junior, Martin Odegaard and superstar Japanese striker Daijiro Tojo. And, really helpfully, starting defenders Gil and Wray both got injured two days beforehand! We don’t really have backups yet so 18-year-old Henry Bennett (who I’d never heard of) made his debut. Unsurprisingly, they dominated and won 3-0.
The year ended at Anfield, still with no available centre-backs. They were easily the best team and won 3-0 but we did muster 11 shots without doing much, which kind of bears well for the future.
To put the big teams in context: Chelsea have an annual salary of £267 million, United £265 million, City £260 million, Liverpool £173 million, Arsenal £170 million and Spurs £145 million. Even Wolves, Leicester and Brighton spend £100 million a year on wages. We, by comparison, spend just £20 million!
A tough December took us to the end of the year sitting pretty in eight in the Premier League! We have 25 points at the halfway point of 19 games, scoring just 16 and conceding a respectable 26. More importantly, we’re 10 points above the relegation zone, which is important as we’ve won one of our last seven and two of the last 10.
Join us next time to see if we can get the 15 points that should help Bolton Wanderers survive in the Premier League at the first attempt!