1) Strength in depth
I've written here before about the need for strength in depth - and how we have a stronger and, I would say, better squad than our immediate rivals in the battle for a Play-Off place. This has been further highlighted by the deadline day loan signings of Danny Butterfield from Southampton and Robert Hall from West Ham - someone who had spent a time on loan at Birmingham City earlier this season. Hall was unable to make his debut due to injury, but we did manage to get a proper look at Butterfield who was afforded his chance to shine due to suspension for Sam Ricketts and injury to both Tyrone Mears and Joe Riley. I will have a review ready of Hall's performances once he steps on to the pitch.
From the little I know of Danny Butterfield, and from what I was told by a Crystal Palace supporting friend of mine, he is a veteran fullback of approximately 400 games for various lower league clubs. Now when he was signed, at first I thought we'd re-signed that fat Chris Eagles lookalike Jacob Butterfield, but thankfully not - we had instead reinforced a full back position in which both Tyrone Mears and Sam Ricketts had occupied but not dominated this season. The links between Dougie Freedman, Lennie Lawrence and Butterfield are numerous, but one look at his footballing CV showed an experienced professional who could then be relied upon in the absence of the aforementioned pair.
However, and I don't like to be especially critical, especially of someone who is cover - but Butterfield did not enjoy an especially convincing home debut in front of the notoriously impatient home supporters (and yes I appreciate the irony in me passing judgement based upon one 90 minute game). Tasked with the right back slot and wearing the frankly ridiculous no.43 shirt, Butterfield was up against sprightly opposition in the form of Neil Danns and Sean Scannell, who confusingly appeared to have come to the game dressed as identical twins.
He struggled with the pace and trickery of the attacking options down Hudderfield's left flank, and this in turn caused Chung-Yong Lee to spend a little more time than we would have liked helping back and defending as the opponents weighed down that side. Butterfield's lack of pace was a problem and he was unable to support the attack in the way we have become accustomed with the usual right back options. He looked, to me, exactly what he is - a back-up. I am loathe to be too critical but I am looking forward to the regular right back returning and displacing Butterfield, be it Mears or Ricketts. My choice would be Mears as he offers more in a defensive aspect, as opposed to Ricketts who seems to find defending a distraction to his preferred style of all-out attack.
2) Forward Options
As the game approached I was wondering whether Dougie Freedman would take a pragmatic approach and choose Marvin Sordell and David Ngog as his strike partners, or go for the massive troll approach and pick Kevin Davies instead - I could fully understand and appreciate either option, but in the end was unsurprised to see that Sordell and Ngog lined up together at the head of the Wanderers formation.
I have changed my mind on both players over this season. I started off with positive feelings regarding Ngog - Big Dave - thinking that the extra time and space that would be afforded to him with the slower and less aware defences in the Npower Championship, and that this would translate into a decent goal return for someone of his obvious ability. I once remarked to a friend that Ngog possesses 99% of the abilities needed to be a top class centre forward, but it's just a shame that the missing 1% is the bit that controls actually putting the ball in the back of the net.
However, as the season has gone on, Ngog has been a source of almost constant frustration to me - although he has beaten his goal tally of four from last season (with six, to date), this really is an unacceptable return for someone of his undoubted ability and someone who I would presume to be one of the higher earners in the squad. We do not have the luxury of allowing Ngog to be a passenger, he needs to weigh in with goals and at present he is not doing his job. Tuesday was another example of this as he spurned two or three decent chances, and was the source of much comment in the stands as to his suitability. If I was in Dougie Freedman's shoes I would be looking to offload the Frenchman in the summer whether promotion is achieved or not. The money that we would presumably collect for his signature could be better spent on more clinical strikers.
Marvin Sordell has been a pleasant surprise for me. My first reaction to seeing him play back in August was that he was a bit of a headless chicken, but a clinical finisher. However over the course of the season I have seen a change in Sordell and I am liking the direction in which he seems to be going. He has clearly bulked up and is taking the manager's words about his concentration and professionalism to heart and is working to make sure that he remains in contention for a first team place as the season comes to a close.
He has scored goals throughout the season that I would say would not have been scored by other strikers in the side, much in the way that Ivan Klasnic used to do in his time at the Reebok Stadium. Against Huddersfield Town on Tuesday night he ran the line well, without much in terms of backup from David Ngog, his supposed strike ‘partner'. Chances in front of goal were few and far between though I will credit Sordell in never giving up and I was a little disappointed that it was he, and not Ngog, who was substituted in the second half.
To date I have been unimpressed with Craig Davies, and it appears that Kevin Davies is no longer in the manager's thoughts, and so it looks to me like Marvin Sordell and David Ngog will be first choice for the forseeable future. The development of Tom Eaves on loan this season has given the fans something to talk about and I should expect we will see his return and inclusion at the start of next season.
Michael Steele/Getty Images
3) JAY SPEARING
I am not ashamed to confess that in the first three months of his time with us I was spectacularly unimpressed with the Liverpool loanee - he appeared to be coasting in games and was slack with his passing especially. However since Christmas we have seen a massive turnaround from Spearing to the point now where I expect Dougie Freedman and Phil Gartside are debating whether to go ahead and make the deal a permanent one, such has been his impact in the last four months. I remember Freedman coming out in the press previously and saying that he was not looking to sign him on a full deal but I would think that recent performances would make him question that stance.
I believe that Spearing would cost in the region of £3m from Liverpool, and would be on wages to match the senior members of the squad, which of course would depend on our division next season as to whether this would be financially viable or not for the club. After all, as much as we enjoy his contribution to the side we can all hopefully agree that a club in our shoes cannot go throwing money around like it is going out of fashion. Look at Blackburn Rovers as an example - they are spending fortunes on the likes of Jordan Rhodes, Danny Murphy and Dickson Etuhu - to the point that they are now losing £2m a month - we cannot afford to be that reckless. With Premiership money behind us then obviously that expense would be covered more easily, but I would like to think we are least considering a deal.
Against Huddersfield on Tuesday night, Jay Spearing played with the authority of a man who knows that he is too good for this level. His passing was snappy and accurate, and his tackling was firm and fair. He had the beating of the opposition midfielders time after time and it is this control and this professionalism that we desperately need in the centre of the pitch and it is these characteristics that has led to Spearing's elevation from squad loanee to vital component in the midfield.
I was asked a question the other day as to who I would vote for in the annual Player of the Year contest, and after giving the question some thought over a brew I decided that my most likely winner would be Spearing, such has his transformation been after a pretty poor start. I do like it when players prove my initial appraisal to be wrong, and I am always glad to be able to say that I have had my mind changed and in Spearing's case I certainly hope we can keep him at Bolton Wanderers.
4) DARREN PRATLEY
Often derided by supporters in his first season, there can be few now who would be disappointed to see Darren Pratley's name on the team sheet each week. He has become a vital cog in Dougie Freedman's Bolton Wanderers machine, and this has been achieved through his own drive and determination to succeed at a club where for his first 15 months he was criticised and belittled in huge waves.
His importance to the side is borne out by statistics, and everyone knows that statistics are infallible and absolutely 100% true. As referenced in the excellent writing of my friend and one-time drinking partner Mark Yesilevskiy here you will see that the importance of Pratley may not be confined to the tangible assist or goals scored columns (not that assists count, because they don't).
Pratley has only ‘assisted' (I hate that word) twice this season, with only one goal scored, but what cannot be measured is his contribution in a physical sense. Without doubt he is one of the fittest members of Dougie Freedman's squad and this is borne out by his constant selection under the manager. Results are better when he plays, too. An average points per game (ppg) return of 1.73 with him, or 0.86 without points at this.
Against Huddersfield Town on Thursday, it was clear that Pratley knew his role and knew how to perform it. That said, it was, and this is perhaps indicative of the majority of his Bolton Wanderers performances, not by any means a perfect display from the midfielder. Often his willingness to run and close opponents down left the defender behind him over-exposed and open to attack. The lack of desire from Chris Eagles and Lee-Chung Yong to track back means that the importance of Spearing and Pratley's tactical discipline is paramount and so it was a little concerning that his positional discipline suffered at the same time.
However he clearly was told this at half time by the manager, as in the second half he reverted to a slightly less cavalier approach and this benefitted all. As Freedman said - Huddersfield didn't set up to play in the way that Bolton Wanderers expected and therefore Pratley's desire to chase the ball in areas that he doesn't normally venture into can perhaps be explained.
He has started the last 15 games in all competitions and I would anticipate that as we enter the business end of the season we will continue to see Darren Pratley given more responsibility as a crucial member of the Bolton Wanderers midfield.
David Rogers/Getty Images
5) SUPER DUPER KEVIN DAVIES
I will, with writers authority, divert from the template of vaguely linking my brain-farts to the previous game to devote a whole chapter to the Kevin Davies issue, with or without your permission or approval.
I was tempted to write something last week about the now confirmed departure of our beloved Kevin Davies, though a combination of being on holiday (New York, and yes, it was excellent, thanks for asking) and being busy at work led to any thoughts going on the backburner or being confined to twitter (@19manning83 in case you wondered. 40,000 odd tweets and barely anything worth saying in there except maybe a conversation with Dave Lee Travis about a hippy festival which turned out to be lies).
Since returning I have caught up with everything via the wonderful medium of the internet. From the interviews online with Phil Gartside and Kevin Davies with that berk Adrian Durham on TalkShite to the various tweets and forum messages across the interweb with thousands of contrasting opinions both pro-BWFC and pro-Davies. It's an emotive issue and one that seems to have divided supporters.
As far as I am concerned, and in my Bolton-supporting lifetime, there have been very few players deserving of the ‘Legend' tag - I would give it to John McGinlay and I would give it to Kevin Davies. We all know the statistics - he has made over 400 appearances, one of a select band of players to achieve this. McGinlay will always be special to me because his era came at the time when I was really beginning to fall in love with football, and he was the main man. I loved his goals, his exuberance, his personality, his tattoo but most of all I loved how he would come out for the pre-game warmup just as the coaches had finished the running bit. What a guy. He scored some great and some vital goals for the club and I was very sorry to see him leave for Bradford City after the first season at the Reebok Stadium. However at the time I accepted the departure because he was clearly not the player that he was following several serious injuries and the passing of time.
In the case of Kevin Davies I remember being completely underwhelmed when I heard that we were signing him on a free transfer from Southampton. All I remembered was the stumpy lad from Blackburn Rovers, Southampton and latterly Millwall, and wondered what the hell Sam Allardyce was playing at, frankly. Then I saw his home debut vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers and was blown away. I loved his strength, his commitment, his drive and his desire. It was clear from the start that he didn't possess the silky skills of his contemporaries, but that he had other attributes that would make him a vital component of a wildly successful side.
As time passed, my love for Davies only grew - his cheeky grin, the glint in his eyes and the never-changing hairstyle were a constant in my sporting conscience, and I was always glad to see him hit the back of the net as well as opposition defenders with glee. He was a throwback to another age where footballers were allowed to be physical and who were unashamed in their tough approach to the game. He gave as good as he got, and this only endeared him to me further as the rest of the Premier League descended into a contest of who would be the biggest girl around.
I do not watch England games. I'm not bothered about the national team. I do not feel comfortable cheering on the likes of Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Ashley Cole and Wayne Rooney when I spend all season booing and harassing them as sworn enemies - however that day in October 2010 will forever be etched in my mind. When he came on the field at Wembley against Montenegro I was so happy and so proud that our Kev was being recognised on the international stage. I still believe that he should have been called up 18 months prior when he was in rampant form, but then again, international football is a load of tripe.
His performances over the last couple of seasons whilst not hitting the heights of his early and mid-years, have still warranted his inclusion, for the most part - and the pain etched upon his face when we were relegated against Stoke City in May was clear to see, and indeed when I spoke to him later that evening at the Player of the Year dinner he was understandably not in the mood for small talk with a slightly tipsy fanboy such as myself. I tried to tell him that I didn't blame him, and that no matter what league we were in that he would receive our support, and that if his wife ever left him he could move in with me, but he was capable of no more reply than "thanks, and if you keep contacting me I'll call the police".
However, despite all of the above, I have been dismayed to come back and read the fallout from the decision not to renew his contract at the end of the season. I can fully understand the club's decision, and of course being a fan of Bolton Wanderers I completely respect their view - yet at the same time I am saddened that the curtain will come down on the career of a modern-day hero of mine, and that it has been done in the public domain with harsh words and accusation and counter-accusation, and that is the most disappointing part.
I am not so naïve as to think that modern football is a world where loyal players would happily spend their entire careers at one club, and not so naïve to think that had another offer come in during Davies' time with Bolton Wanderers that had, for example, doubled his wages, that he would not have moved on - because that's how the modern game operates.
I would however have expected, on the club's side, to have handled the new of Davies' departure with a little more tact and sensitivity considering the almost-decade long loyal service that he has given us. In return we have resurrected a career that, with respect, was on the slide when he joined and we will have given him and his family some happy memories of the club and the town, but these things will always come to an end.
I think the strength of feeling involved with Davies' departure comes at a time when our social conscience is at its most receptive, with social media and the news never having been more prevalent. In an era where the club will tweet, where the player will tweet and when bored fans will tweet then you will find any number of different opinions at your fingertips - perhaps once upon a time news such as that disseminated by the club about Davies would have been in the local paper only, with responses given from ‘A CONCERNED FAN (FARNWORTH)' in the letter section.
Therefore the PR aspect of announcing the departure in this manner has led to some ill-feeling about the whole issue - an issue which I believe that despite asking a die-hard Kevin Davies fan, has been made with Bolton Wanderers in mind, and at the end of the day we are all Bolton Wanderers supporters and want what is best the club.
That said, we will never forget the contribution of Kevin Davies - we will never forget the joy on his face when he scored in Munich - the pride when he played for England - and the commitment and loyalty shown over the years. We know that he has turned down moves away, and chosen to remain at the club, and this only endears him to me further. I will be sad when Kevin Davies leaves Bolton Wanderers, but I will choose to remember the player, and not the politics.
Phew. Well done for reaching the end of that. I didn't intend on it being so hard (that's what she said) to write. I would just like to close by thanking Dennis and Mark of LOV for being so hospitable to myself and my new fiancee during our time in New York last week. Top lads.