Embarking on a 20th season in charge of Bolton Wanderers, I’d taken the club from the fourth tier of English football and financial ruin to four-time national champions and being absolutely minted in the last 19 years.
I decided the squad was in need of a shakeup, which began with selling academy product strikers Dylan Smart to Villa for £13.5 million and Craig Radcliffe to Newcastle for £13.75 million. We also sold centre-back Matej Horak to Atalanta for a huge £20.5 million, right-back Vitor Mesquita to Villarreal for £10 million and Mexican attacker Luis Antonio Nava, who wouldn’t get a work permit, to PSG for £7.75 million. Just as the season was getting started underperforming midfielder Marco Manuzzi went AWOL so I flogged him to Arsenal for £52 million.
Everton came in with non-negotiable offers of £63 million bid for exciting academy product Jack Barlow and £90 million for world-class midfielder Germán Martínez, which we flat out rejected.
I’d been worried we didn’t have a good enough striker, and spotted an exciting option in 18-year-old Turkish wonderkid striker Onur Kocaaslan who, for some reason, was available for just £14 million from Bayern. I think he’s also our first first-team player to have been born after this save started – he was born on 4 August 2020.
We also snapped up backup right-back Casemiro Gallas, who cost £5 million from Internacional and needs to work on his tackling and crossing. Aside from that, we promoted more youth players in goalkeeper Daniel Ibarguen, centre-back Logan Holtz and attacker Jack Bickley. And those deals took the Bolton bank balance past £900 million for the first time – with a tasty £423 million transfer budget and £4.1 million of our £6 million wage budget going unused.
I was tempted to revert to a slightly tweaked version of our two striker formation but also worked on an updated version of our 4-2-3-1 with a shadow striker and a raumdeuter. Edgy.
Chasing a fifth title
Pre-season included a testimonial with Leicester for their midfielder Sergio Ayetz, who spent a year on loan with us in our first season back in the Premier League in 2031/32, which was a nice touch. Then a glorified friendly saw us take on Watford in the Community Shield and a Martial Diaby brace sealed a 2-1 win having lost the previous three.
The season proper began with a tough test away to Man United, who’d just signed elite striker Pol Barrios, who we’d scouted for several years but always been priced out, from Barcelona for £115 million. They scored early in the second half and, despite a terrible performance, Luca Godden missed a sitter that would have nicked a point late on. But an opening day loss and only three shots to United’s 19.
I was so disappointed with that game that I went back to the 4-2-3-1 with Kocaaslan up top. He took five minutes to score his debut goal, doubled his tally inside 13 minutes and created a goal for Diaby after 20. Diaby then teed up two goals for Emiliano Sotomayor to make it 5-0 from five shots after 25 minutes. Watford also scored with their first shot but Barlow set up Kocaaslan for his hat-trick on 50 minutes. But he wasn’t done there as he added two more after the break for a debut five-goal haul – which immediately set a new club record for goals in a game. He even had a late chance for a double hat-trick that was well saved by the hapless keeper. But this has to be the best debut ever?
Unsurprisingly, we changed nothing for a trip to Norwich and a good second half showing saw us win 3-0 with goals from Barlow, Kocaaslan and Sotomayor. Southampton then inexplicably led 2-0 from two shots in 20 minutes but Diaby and Kocaaslan earned a 2-2 draw.
That opening to the season gave us a feel that this team was probably going to be good in attack but a bit dodgy at the back. And that showed as Kocaaslan bagged two more goals in a 4-0 win over Crystal Palace, who managed to rack up an xG of 1.43 only for Niksa Djerovic to play a 7.7 in denying them. Kocaaslan then showed his creative touch as he laid on both goals in a 2-1 win over Bournemouth. But he was back on the scoresheet in a 4-2 win at Leicester, in which Martínez racked up a hat-trick of assists, then bagged a hat-trick in a 5-2 thumping of Aston Villa.
Trotter Talent England call-up!
Barlow’s role in our strong run of form earned him a first call up to the England squad in October 2039. And he became the first Trotters Talent academy product to earn an England cap as a 75th minute substitute in a 4-0 win over Belgium.
Coming back from the international break we faced some tough fixtures. First, we went to Liverpool, where fellow academy product Luke Johnson was man of the match in a 1-1 draw. We took the lead through Martínez straight from the kick-off but Liverpool dominated from that point on and a solid defensive effort earned a point.
We then welcomed Man City and their 100% record (nine wins out of nine), which meant they led us by seven points. But an inspired performance by Diaby saw him score and lay on goals for Kocaaslan and a goal of the month stunner from Martínez, who then set up a late fourth for Kocaaslan despite going super defensive late on.
Another Kocaaslan brace in a 3-2 win at bottom side Brighton took him to 20 goals in 11 matches, before another in a 2-1 win over West Ham. He’s started his career in sensational form! But we rapidly faced tough trips to Chelsea, where we did well to draw 1-1 with a knackered side, and Arsenal, where I tweaked our formation to a 4-1-3-2. A sensational run from Kocaaslan set up Martínez for an early opener only for a ridiculous penalty decision to gift the hosts an equaliser. Arsenal dominated but a genius substitution saw homegrown Andrei Olesk come on to score a late, extremely fluky and probably hugely undeserved winner.
After the disgrace of not scoring in a match, Kocaaslan bagged a hat-trick to move onto 25 goals by the end of November in a 5-0 thrashing of local rivals Burnley. That was followed by a brilliant performance by Sotomayor, who scored and created three in a 5-0 win at seventh-place Leeds.
That teed up my 1,000th match in management at home to Derby, who had two of our favourites among their ranks in Sean Caldwell and Solomon Suraka, as well as our former defender Ferney Tapasco. But they were no match for the new class as Kocaaslan, Sotomayor, Martínez, who racked up 10 key passes, and a Johnson penalty sealed a 4-0 win that took us to 30 home games unbeaten.
We rounded the year off at West Brom, where Kocaaslan scored early on before a magnificent Diaby solo goal. Everton lost at home to Man City the same day, which moved us top of the league for the first time this season heading into 2040.
At the near half-way point we’re on 45 points and we’ve scored a league-high 57 goals. Kocaaslan has been an absolute sensation with 28 goals in 19 games and 25 in just 17 in the league – compared to our top scorer all of last season only scoring 17. However, his efforts have amazingly been usurped by Everton striker Mario Ricca, who’s scored a ridiculous 28 in 18 league games!
Champions League group
For the first time in three years we didn’t draw Hertha BSC in the group stage. Huzzah! However, we did get a fairly tough group of AC Milan, Marbella FC, who finished fourth in La Liga, and Fenerbahce.
We began away at Milan and did well to hold them to a 0-0 draw at San Siro. Kocaaslan was on fire with a hat-trick and an assist to down Marbella 5-0 then Diaby netted twice as Johnson and Edvan got their first goals of the season to beat Fenerbahce 4-1. A 1-1 draw at Fenerbahce, in which we had to make six changes, was followed by an edgy 1-0 win at home to Milan, which sealed qualification. We rounded off the group with a trip to Marbella, for which I made 10 changes to rest players and we lost 1-0 to bottle top place. But in the next round we’ll play Porto, which seems a little lucky.
Join us next time as we chase a fifth successive title and move into the knockout stages as we still hunt a first Champions League success.