The quality of Bolton's central midfield has ebbed and flowed over the years, ranging from the artistry of Fernando Hierro and Ivan Campo to the thuggery of Tamir Cohen and Gavin McCann, but there has usually been enough talent available to get the job done. Conversely, there has never really been too much talent for the manager to juggle. That may change in the next couple of weeks.
Darren Pratley has been a revelation over the past few months. Sometimes he has been in a more attacking role, sometimes sitting deep in front of the back four. Certainly no one would have predicted this last season, and very few would have dared to do so this season. Yet here he is, contributing every week, and working his way onto the short list for Bolton Wanderers' Player of the Season.
Much of Pratley's good work has come partnering the favorite for that award. There was minimal fanfare when Jay Spearing arrived at the Reebok last summer on loan from Liverpool (insert biting joke here). He wasn't an Arsenal starlet, or a Chelsea man-mountain, or a continental maestro, he was a hard-working, undersized central midfielder a little past the age where he should have established himself in the Red's squad. Fortunately, that was just what the Trotters needed.
Josh Vela is young, but has always looked impressive in very limited first team appearances. This was supposed to be the year he claimed a spot in the senior squad, and he probably has, but a long term injury along with general match fitness issues have held him back. Only now does he finally seem ready to assume a full-time job in the middle of the park.
When Medo Kamara came in January, I think most looked at him as short term cover. He was a bit of a mystery, a little old to be making his first move to one of the bigger footballing nations. Many figured he was an insurance policy, just in case another midfielder who was coming off of major surgery couldn't play 90 minutes every week. Shockingly, Medo has been much more than that. He has come in mostly to cover for injured players, as we originally expected, but the tenacity and skill he has shown while on the pitch have made believers of Wanderers supporters the world over.
That leaves the X-factor. Two years removed from his glorious ascension into the Premier League's elite, Stu Holden appears to finally be back in contention for a role in the starting XI. Even after his long layoff Stu's quality has been easy to see, and if he is fit to do so, it is hard to see him not taking part in the playoff push, despite having barely played with the club this season.
So there we have it. Five men. Two spots. This weekend's match is too soon for Spearing, but he should be recovered in time for the playoffs, if Bolton qualify. If we were to rank these players by talent alone, that would be a different list than who we think should start our final matches of the season.
If I were picking the team, I would go with Medo and Pratley against Cardiff, no reason to upset the apple cart. Holden and Vela are also the type of players who can have a huge effect coming in as a substitute, a role that does not seem to play to the strengths of Pratley and Medo. What do you think Wanderers faithful? Who would you have stoking the coals in the engine room?