When Bolton Wanderers finally got relegated, a position they probably should not have found themselves in, it hit the fans hard. It was a long, hard summer. But when the lads returned to give the Championship a try for the first time in over a decade, everyone around the club had reason for optimism. We were returning most of our top players, some of the long term injuries were finally healing, and general consensus was we had one of the best, if not the best, squads in the division. Our friend QuentinX over at Vital Bolton wrote:
Strange as it may seem, the midfield excites me. A midfield four of LCY-Mavies-Andrews-Petrov is one of the best in the division. Naturally, there will be times when the ball evades them as it whizzes between defences and it is up to them to get themselves into the game. The crosses from both LCY and Petrov will have to be spot on, given the more physical nature of the Championship. There will be injuries along the way, but if Stuart Holden does come back and performs at the level he did two seasons ago, the players across the park could just lead us back to the Premier League at a canter.
He wasn't wrong. That midfield would not be out of place in the Premier League, even now. Add Stuart Holden to the mix and it is easily the class of the league. Mea Culpa, I wrote something fairly similar about Martin Petrov at about the same time:
When Petrov is in the mood he is still a class player. However, it is anybody's guess how often he will be in the mood while playing in the English second division. If he wants to, he can be one of the best players in the Championship and help lead Bolton to automatic promotion.
That same player was dropped from the squad Saturday. I guess he wasn't in the mood. The rest of the midfield has had its problems as well. Chung-Yong Lee has taken much longer to return to form post-injury than we all had hoped. Mark Davies inconsistency has not only continued, it has got worse. He used to be horrible for 50 minutes and brilliant for 40 minutes. Up until about two weeks ago, he had been horrible for 90 minutes every match. He has finally found some form under Dougie Freedman, but nothing close to what we know he is capable of. Bestofthebets.com had this to say in the preseason:
In spite of their many problems last term, Bolton won seven out of ten matches against the rest of the bottom six with most of those games built-up as high-pressure six-pointers. It's a statistic that suggests they should make most of the running at this level, providing they get off to a decent start. Some big names have been offloaded but none will be sorely missed. The remaining core has a very balanced look to it with potential star performers in all areas of the field.
In the same vein, Paddy Power installed Bolton and Leicester City as the joint 7/1 favourites to win the Championship this season. If the bookies are this wrong, we are all in trouble.
And that is the big question; Are we in trouble? We are not where we want to be, or where we thought we would be, certainly, but is it panic time?
Let's get one thing straight, firing the manager was not a panic move. Phil Gartside and the board showed a great deal of patience, giving Owen Coyle more than a year to sort out blatant defensive problems. No panic signings have been made, and it is doubtful any will be made in January. So let's look at the table.
17 matches have been played in the Championship. 29 matches remain. This is loads of time. Bolton sit 17th, eight points above the relegation zone, seven points below the playoff spots, and fifteen points below league leaders Crystal Palace. This isn't great, but maybe it isn't as terrible as we think. For comfort, all we need to do is read last seasons Championship table. One year ago this week, on November 19th 2011, Reading lost to Cardiff 2-1. This left them 14th in the table, with 21 points from 17 matches. As anyone who watched them beat Everton yesterday can attest, last season turned out OK for Reading Football Club.
The point is, the Championship season is not a sprint. It is not even a marathon. It is one of those ultra-marathons, where people run 100 miles through a desert in the middle of July.
Bolton have had their share of problems. And Dougie Freedman is still trying to work them out. We have seen improvement on the field. Look at the results. Four straight without a loss may not seem like much, but Owen Coyle did that once. Read that sentence again. In almost three years as Bolton manager, Owen Coyle only once showed enough consistency to go four matches without a loss. Freedman has done it in his first four matches. We are in good hands. We all thought we had the talent in the preseason, and honestly, we still do. If you want to make some money, bet on Bolton making the playoffs now. You will get much more profitable odds than you would have in the summer.