Every manager signs young players. They are fairly easy to find, and they are cheap. And every young player has potential, has some sort of talent that can be projected going forward. The challenge, the real sign of devotion to a youth movement, is the willingness to play these young players, and play them in pressure situations.
Ironically, of all Bolton's managers in the past 15 years or so, the one most successful at signing young players was probably Gary Megson. Now, as I stated above, the real test is actually playing those youngsters, and many of Megson's signings did not truly come into their own until after he departed, but the list is fairly impressive nonetheless. Chung-Yong Lee, Fabrice Muamba, Gary Cahill, Mark Davies, all were signed by the ginger Mourinho. But the truth is, I am not really interested in signings right now, I am interested in pitch time. Today's question is; Has Dougie shown trust in his young players by giving them adequate opportunities on the pitch?
Who played the most matches for Bolton this season? Zat Knight of course. He was on the team sheet 47 times, every one of them from the start. Knight is 33 years old, and certainly on the back nine of what has been, all things considered, a fairly impressive career. But he is certainly not part of the future. So let's see who partnered him in the centre of defense.
Craig Dawson and Matt Mills both made sixteen starts. Many of Mills' appearances came before Freedman arrived, and injury drove that number down. Dawson won the starting spot almost immediately after he came on loan from West Brom. Dawson just turned 23, which is great, he is a very good young player, unfortunately he is not our good young player. Mills, on the other hand, will turn 27 this summer. Not exactly young, but in his prime. There is a good chance he will leave this summer though.
Tim Ream made 15 appearances, most of those as a central defender. He is 25, and would normally not be considered a young player, but there is a caveat. Ream is from the USA. Players from the US come through a less rigorous system, playing far fewer matches against elite competition, and not turning professional until their late teens, sometimes their early 20's. We have seen American players from Clint Dempsey to Jay Demerit to our own Stuart Holden not get enough experience under their belts to make an impact until much later than you would expect. As they gain that experience, Americans also tend to peak much later than European players, whose bodies can start to wear down. The best is yet to come from Tim Ream.
All that said, we don't have any young players in central defense. We have on a few occasions had a young fullback pairing, but Marcos Alonso has signed with Fiorentina, and we all know the issues with Joe Riley.
In the midfield the news is a bit better. Josh Vela, only 19, made seven appearances, six of them starts, and looked very good in doing so. He should be a huge part of the Bolton spine going forward. He may be joined by a winger, 18-year-old Chris Lester. Lester has yet to make a senior appearance, though he has been on the bench quite a few times. He is highly rated by all who have seen him, and Freedman himself does not seem very concerned with bringing in another wing player. The question is, will he trust Lester in the big matches? The other midfield youngster is Jan Gregus, 22, who came in last year and scored a few thunderbolts for the reserves. I look for him to make an impact this season.
The place where Dougie really seemed willing to go with the youngsters was at the forward position. Tom Eaves, 21, spent most of the season on loan. However, Freedman recalled him in April, when need was dire, and threw him right into the fire with three substitute appearances. Marvin Sordell made 26 appearances, most of them after Owen Coyle left. 17 were starts and he scored eight goals. The best part? He is only 22, and continues to improve. I think he is going to have a monster season.
To summarize, Bolton are not what we would call a young team, but they do have a few young players. They are, however, a long way from the days of Sam Allardyce. Under Big Sam there were games where not a single Bolton player was under thirty. Now, many of our principal contributors are in their mid to late twenties, which is a good thing. One of Freedman's big jobs this summer is to make sure the next generation is ready to back them up.