Another undefeated start to the season saw Bolton Wanderers sitting pretty at the top of the Premier League heading into 2043. Despite a few injury issues, the team was absolutely on fire as it looked to bag an 8th successive Premier League title.
We headed into the new year celebrating a first Bolton academy player being recognised as the best young player in the world. Midfielder Jack Bickley won the FIFA Best U21 Men’s Player after a great spell of form this season. 21-year-old Darlan came second in the World Golden Glove, only beaten by Juventus’ world-class keeper, and Germán Martínez was in the FIFA FirPro Team of the Year with striker Onur Kocaaslan on the bench.
In-form striker Dragan Andric had attracted the interest of Barcelona, which ended up making him unhappy. I eventually negotiated a massive club and national record deal and the biggest transfer of this save as he moved for £170 million. We also sold academy product right-back Ben Halliwell, now 21 and performing poorly, to Benfica for £17 million and midfielder Iwan Sinnott, who wanted £150,000-a-week, to Villarreal for £15 million, where he signed a £60,000 deal.
We continued our focus of snapping up youngsters from youth intakes around the world. Read my recent FM Guide article to find out how we go about doing that! And that saw the arrival of exciting American midfielder Kyle Rangel for £2.6 million from PSG, and his value immediately jumped to £26.5 million!, and Brazilian winger Sílvio Luiz for £1.9 million from Flamengo. We also tapped up Flamengo for left-winger José Antonio for £15 million, which will help us switch to our 4-2-3-1 if we need to but I’ll convert him to a shadow striker.
Seeking an 8th title
2043 didn’t start overly well as Everton scored a total fluke but Martínez got us an equaliser. We’d already seen summer signing Marco Brunori ruled out for most of the season and another blow saw stalwart Gonzalo Pereyra suffer a hip injury that will see him miss three months. Then Martial Diaby and Ibrahima Touré went to the African Cup of Nations for a few weeks!
That wasn’t ideal for a trip to Arsenal, where some shocking defending gifted Arsenal a 4-2 win despite a Kocaaslan brace and a great performance by Darlan. However, the goalkeeper then also got injured ahead of a trip to Palace, which saw academy product and fellow Brazilian Ildamar Testoni make his league debut. But the 20-year-old wasn’t fazed and kept a clean sheet as on-loan striker Jesús Garrido and Kocaaslan’s 20th of the season sealed a 2-0 win. The keeper immediately kept a second clean sheet as sub Adrian Jules bagged a late brace to defeat Derby 2-0.
One of five matches against Leicester and 10 matches in total in January (see below!) saw exciting academy talent Adam Nolan, playing as a makeshift striker, score twice in the first half hour to double his tally for the campaign. A 2-0 win moved us 10 points clear of Man United and Liverpool with a game in hand.
Youngsters impress again in the Cups
I continued my ethos of blooding the youngsters in the cup competitions, which saw them face big games against 11th in the Premier League Leicester. Firstly, they drew 0-0 away in the FA Cup third round, which looked like a great result. That was until the replay as Garrido and the exciting Jules scored to seal progression to the fourth round, with both assists coming from Rangel. They drew 1-1 at Premier League Wolves in the fourth round then exciting centre-back Martin Preston headed home an Antonio corner to nick the replay 1-0.
They’d also reached the Carabao Cup semis, so I entrusted them in another two-legged clash with Leicester. The home leg was up first and Jules opened the scoring on 17 minutes, which was enough for a 1-0 win. They took a battering in the away leg but a brace by loanee Andrea Lupi gained a hard-earned 3-2 defeat and a penalty shootout. Lupi then missed the third penalty only for Ryan Pritchard to save Leicester’s fourth to take it to sudden death. And our youngsters showed amazing bottle to score four successive penalties until Leicester missed their seventh. So Bolton’s youngsters were heading to Wembley!
That sent us into the Carabao Cup Final against Chelsea and, probably foolishly, I decided the kids had earned the opportunity. They started superbly as Jules ran from the kick-off and passed for exciting midfielder Giannis Ntelekos to slam home after 13 seconds! Chelsea immediately equalised from the corner then scored from two more corners and a penalty from a clear dive, which saw them score four goals from five shots. But Rangel scored his first Bolton goal just before half-time then a Chelsea player took Touré out when he was clean through and didn’t even get booked! A 4-2 loss but a highly credible effort by a team with an average age of just 20.
A few days later, they were called upon again for the FA Cup fifth round at home to League One Rotherham. Another bright start saw Touré score after seven minutes and that gave them the confidence to batter Rotherham 5-2. That took them into the quarter-finals at home to Derby, who’d fallen away from European contention in the league. But their team – which included two England internationals! – had too much talent and the run ended with a 4-0 loss.
Back to league action
Diaby returned from Africa to score twice and win a penalty in a 6-0 thumping of nine-man West Ham. Nolan again scored two, which made me finally think he may be better suited to being a deep-lying forward than a midfielder.
We lost 3-1 at United, who closed the gap at the top to seven points. The cup action above gave the first team a two-week rest ahead of the next league game at relegation-threatened Wolves, who the kids had already beaten twice this season. A sensational Diaby solo strike inside four minutes gave us a great start and Kocaaslan and Bickley finishes had us in full control at the break. Diaby added his second after it as we breezed to a 4-0 win.
We then entertained third-place Liverpool, who had the better of the first half before Diaby put us ahead but immediately conceded an equaliser and it stayed 1-1. An unlikely source put us ahead at home to Villa as academy product left-back Aidan Main scored his first Bolton league goal. Kocaaslan doubled the lead after the break before Nolan – who won his third successive young player of the month in March – tucked home a penalty.
Champions League knockout stages
The first Champions League knockout round offered a tough task against Bayern Munich. The home leg was up first and a dreadful first half was instantly forgotten thanks to a wonderful Diaby solo goal. Bayern got an undeserved late equaliser before Touré missed an absolute sitter.
A poor start to the away leg saw Bayern score after nine minutes. But a towering Lasse Hermansen header got us level then Kocaaslan raced through and scored a gorgeous chip against his former club. Martínez claimed both assists and his player of the match effort was enough to send us through 3-2 on aggregate.
Our reward for that was Real Madrid in the quarter-final. A trip to the Bernabeu was up first and Kocaaslan won a penalty that Nolan coolly converted after 14 minutes only for our former loanee Iván to immediately equalise. The striker scored again after the break but a brilliant Ntelekos pass sent Kocaslaan through to nick a 2-2 draw. Real scored early in the away leg but we dominated from thereon, missed a penalty, but substitute Touré eventually scored a deserved equaliser to send us through to the semis on away goals.
That teed up a semi-final with Inter, with Juventus and PSG facing off in the other semi. The home leg was up first and I’d saved former AC Milan player Brunori to return for this moment. He was the best player on the pitch in a terrible game that swing on a double substitution. Jules and Touré came on after 70 minutes and Jules created the opener for Touré on 83 minutes then tucked a Nolan through ball home in the fourth minute of injury-time.
The away leg marked my 1,200th game in charge of Bolton. Inter started better and missed a great chance in a quiet second half. However, the hosts scored 30 seconds into the second half following a Darlan howler and doubled their lead 20 minutes later to take it to extra-time. I laid into the lads at full-time and it finally sparked something as Diaby, who’d been in abysmal form, raced through to chip the keeper from an excellent Ntelekos pass. We went on the defensive and held on for a narrow 3-2 aggregate win. Bolton were going to a second Champions League Final!
A tighter title battle
With eight games remaining, we had a six-point lead over Man United with two games in hand. An international break hangover saw us lose 1-0 at Southampton but United also lost at home to Arsenal. We put things right by thumping strugglers Stoke 4-0 as United lost again, 5-3 at Everton, as did Liverpool at Man City, which left Arsenal as our closest challengers.
Another awful performance saw us create nothing and lose 1-0 at 16th-place Watford. That wasn’t ideal heading to Spurs, where another lacklustre attacking performance was rescued by a trademark Martínez screamer and a solid defensive effort. It also saw Kocaaslan break his arm, but he was able to play through with protective equipment.
For the first time in a while we had an actual title battle on our hands as, with five games remaining, Arsenal were three points back having played a game more. Arsenal had won 10 league games on the bounce and 16 of their last 18! While we only had two wins in our last seven in all competitions.
Kocaaslan, playing with one arm, bagged a first half brace at home to Newcastle. Some shoddy defending allowed the visitors back into it but Kocaaslan completed his hat-trick to move on to 30 goals for the season. His replacement Touré and fellow substitute Jules scored late on to seal an emphatic 5-1 thumping. At the same time, Arsenal drew 2-2 at nearly relegated Wolves to open up a five point gap.
A home game against a much-improved Fulham, who’d gone from 20th after 18 games to 9th, came between the two Inter clashes. So I rotated fairly heavily with nine changes but we still dominated and eventually nicked it as Nolan teed up Touré for a 74th-minute winner. Arsenal drew 1-1 at Spurs, which handed us the title with three games remaining.
Bolton Wanderers won an 8th successive Premier League title!!
That allowed us to rest players for the last three games. We unsurprisingly got hammered 4-0 at City, were unlucky to draw 0-0 at home to Chelsea, and Preston and Latorre headers earned a 2-2 draw at West Brom. As a result, we only won the league by three points and 83 points was the lowest title-winning total in this save. However, we still had the league’s best attack, scoring 84, and defence, only conceding 27.
Kocaaslan won Top Goalscorer for the second year in a row with 25 in 31, level with Man United’s Barrios who played seven more, and had the second-best average rating of 7.33. And Bickley got the most assists in the league with 14.
Kocaaslan also won English Players’ Young Player of the Year for the second season in a row and the third time in four years. Barlow came second in the Goal of the Season for his thunderbolt against Chelsea. And Darlan won the Golden Glove for the second season in a row with 18 clean sheets and only conceded 21 in 32. While Barlow, Hermansen, Martínez, Bicklley and Kocaaslan – but bizarrely not Darlan – were named in the Team of the Year.
Champions League Final
Bolton’s second Champions League Final, and first since winning it in 2040, saw them take on 2041 winners Juventus – who, hilariously, only played Edmundo Júnior in one league game and have demoted him to their Under 23s! – at Santiago Bernabeú. Juve impressively beat PSG 2-0 away to win their semi 3-2 on aggregate.
The media expected a tight game, making Juventus 7/5 favourites with us 7/4 and a draw 5/2. The Bolton starting lineup was:
Darlan; Barlow, Hermansen, Pereyra, Brunori; Bickley, Ntelekos, Martínez; Diaby; Kocaaslan, Nolan
Subs: Touré, Testoni, Preston, Rangel, Jules, Olesk, Gallas, Antonio, Latorre, Ferguson
Juve, despite an awful defensive 5-4-1 formation, started brightly and scored after just seven minutes, as a Darlan save rebounded to their striker. Darlan kept us in it with three huge saves as we struggled to deal with the Italians. But a half-time rollicking, a switch to 4-2-4 and a triple sub saw one of those changes Touré tee up his countryman Diaby to drag us level on 62 minutes. We kept attacking and, just as it looked like extra-time was inevitable, Andrei Olesk put in a brilliant tackle to retrieve possession before putting Kocaaslan through to tuck home a dramatic 94th-minute winner! Watch the winner here.
Bolton Wanderers were Champions of Europe for the second time!!
What a season this has been! The Premier League wasn’t as dominant as recent years but we certainly improved in Europe to beat Bayern, Real and Juve en route to becoming Champions of Europe. Kocaaslan led the way with 31 goals, which won him fans’ player and young player of the season. It also saw him win the Best Player in Europe award, which is the first time any Bolton player has won that award, and the European Golden Shoe. He’s now scored 165 goals in 178 games in four seasons at Bolton.
Only three outfield players didn’t score this season. Diaby, who suffered a drop in form that I’m putting down to fatigue before playing well in the Champions League semi and final, got 17, Touré popped up with 11, followed by Nolan (9), Jules (8) and Bickley (5). Bickley headed the assists chart with 14, followed by Diaby (13), Martínez (10) and Brunori with 8 in 20 in an excellent injury-hit debut season which won him fans’ player of the season.
Trotter Talents Update
This season has seen the emergence of 6ft 6in academy product centre-back Preston. He stepped up in Pereyra’s absence and performed solidly, including a dominant player of the match performance as we wrapped up the title at home to Fulham then captaining the side in the final two games of the season. Barlow has settled into his right-back role but lost his place in the England squad despite scoring 5 goals in 18 caps. But Bickley – after winning the FIFA U21 award – earned a first call-up but is still waiting for his first cap. While Nolan’s rated potential has dropped off despite him having a solid season, often playing as a striker.
The squad still contains eight academy products and there’s a few more still pushing for the first team. Five of them were called up by England for the U21 Euros, along with one for Germany. But unfortunately we had a poor youth intake, of which the pick were three players with three-star potential.
A look around England
We won our 8th title while all the usual suspects made it into Europe and West Ham, Wolves and Stoke went down. Leeds won the Championship and were joined by Middlesbrough and Burnley, while Barnsley, our feeder club Oldham and Preston went down.
Sheffield Wednesday won League 1 and Peterborough and Wycombe were promoted with Northampton, Ipswich, Chesterfield and MK Dons going down. Bradford won League 2 with Cambridge and Brentford going up and Accrington Stanley and Stevenage dropping out of the league system.
They were replaced by Darlington and Salford with Solihull, Dagenham & Redbridge, Cheltenham and Welling going down. Telford, Blyth, Newport and Boreham Wood came up to the National League while one of the big surprises so far saw Morecambe drop out of the playable leagues along with Workington, Farsley, Cambridge City, Brackley, Haringey, Billericay and Met Police.
Arsenal won the FA Cup beating Derby on penalties after a 2-2 draw and Chelsea beat our youngsters to win the Carabao Cup. A surprise Europa League result saw Lille end England’s dominance by beating Villa 1-0.
Join us next time as we chase a 9th Premier League title and defend our Champions League win!