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Season Preview: Rob

Long-suffering Wanderers fans are well accustomed to high pre-season hopes being dashed before Christmas, but can the team buck the trend after last season's disappointment reduced expectations for the 2014/15 campaign?

Wanderer's striker frustration could see Jermaine Beckford leading the line this season
Wanderer's striker frustration could see Jermaine Beckford leading the line this season
Clint Hughes

Heading into the new season Dougie Freedman has begun to rebuild and created a squad that more matches the one he wants, as opposed to the one he inherited. He has allowed several higher earners to move on and added much needed strength in depth in key areas.

Below is an overview of Bolton Wanderers’ summer activity and my hopes and expectations for the season ahead.

Welcome Macron

The first major change to note this season is a new look for both the stadium and our kits, as Italian sportswear firm Macron took on full sponsorship rights. How we will feel about ‘going to the Macron’ remains to be seen, with the Reebok Stadium having become synonymous with the Wanderers over the last 17 years. But if the newly designed Macron kits are anything to go by, then things are looking promising already.

Revolving exit door

We’ve seen a wave of high earning players move on from Bolton since our relegation from the Premier League and this summer has been no different. Chris Eagles, who failed to deliver at all last season, was allowed to leave on a free transfer along with club captain Zat Knight.

Other first-team names leaving the club include Tyrone Mears, who spent more time injured than he was available for selection, while Alex Bapiste and Keith Andrews have been loaned out to Blackburn Rovers and Watford FC respectively. Meanwhile Marvin Sordell, who showed no willingness to play for Bolton since we signed him from Watford, has been sold to Burnley.

One sad departure over the summer is that of Stuart Holden. Stu has had a frightful time with injuries, playing just one first-team match in three years since that tackle by Jonny Evans at Old Trafford. He has left the club on the expiry of his contract, but rumours are that he continues to train with the squad and his squad number has been left open – so here’s hoping one day we will see him in a Bolton shirt again.

It remains to be seen whether more exits will follow as Freedman looks to free up finances to add to the squad, but if I had my way I’d be looking to sell Darren Pratley and Chung-Yong Lee, who was very disappointing whenever I saw him play last season. Rumours are still circulating linking Mark Davies with a move away but given his injury record it’s difficult to imagine any club taking a gamble on him.

Influx of new faces

Given the number of players leaving the club, Freedman had to bring in new faces and he has done a good job in adding vital experience to the squad.

The major plus of Wanderers’ summer transfer activity is bolstering a defence that has been painfully leaky for the past three seasons. Dorian Dervite, arriving from Charlton Athletic, should cut a far more composed figure than Knight at the heart of the defence. While the signings of Kevin McNaughton, who impressed on loan at the Reebok last season, and Crystal Palace’s Dean Moxey, who started all but one of his side’s opening 17 Premier League matches last season, add vital experience to both flanks.

With the defence sorted, the next key objective was to find a striker – which has proved a bit trickier. Number one target Lukas Jutkiewicz frustratingly joined Burnley despite suggesting he was keen on a move to Bolton, and all other targets seem to have evaporated. Talk of Joe Mason joining from Cardiff again continues, and it seems likely Freedman may have to wait for Premier League cast-offs to become available on loan before he finds his man.

But Wanderers have managed to enhance their creative midfield options, with the arrival of Neil Danns following last season’s promising displays on loan from Leicester City and the signing of Liam Feeney, who also impressed during a brief loan stint. Danns contributed goals and assists last season, providing a creative spark that was lacking from the rest of the team. Feeney looked like a real threat to defences, providing old-fashioned direct wing play and an ability to deliver quality from wide areas – if we can add a striker with an eye for goal to our squad, then Feeney could be deadly. Feeney’s former Millwall teammate Liam Trotter has also joined on a free transfer following his own loan spell at Bolton last season.

Giving youth a chance

A perennial problem for Wanderers has been the inability to produce youngsters with the ability to become first-team regulars. In the last ten to 15 years it is possible to count on one hand those that hve graduated from the youth teams into the first-team – Kevin Nolan, Joey O’Brien and Nicky Hunt are the only three that spring to mind.

Given Freedman’s passion for developing youngsters it should come as no surprise that he is ready to give some of our Development Squad players a crack in the first-team. Several have already impressed in pre-season, with the likes of Josh Vela, who has had a series of disappointing injuries restrict his progress in the last couple of years, Oscar Threlkeld and Zach Clough, who has netted two pre-season goals, all pushing their claims for places in the side. Given the lack of strikers at the club Conor Wilkinson, signed last season from Millwall, has also put his name in the hat by scoring a cracking long-range effort at Rochdale.

Wanderers fans certainly won’t begrude Freedman giving youth a chance. Clough in particular is one to watch, and there is an argument that there is more value in giving him a chance than persisting with Lee.

Promising times ahead

Overall Wanderers have strengthened their squad over the summer and made the right decision to let several higher earning players move on. The defence now looks more robust and there’s a bit more threat and creativity in the midfield areas. All that now remains is to find a striker or two that can feed onto the creativity from the likes of Danns and Feeney and fire in the goals, which you’d suspect Jermaine Beckford and Craig Davies probably won’t.

I firmly believe that if we can add that striker to the squad then we can push for the play-offs. The Championship is a notoriously difficult league to get out of and it’s imperative that we get off to a much better start than the last two seasons, which have effectively killed our hopes both times. The players Freedman has already added should at least steer us well clear of the relegation battle we nearly fell into last season.

If Dougie’s defensive restructuring works out, if he can add a 20-goal a season striker, and if giving youth a chance pays off then a promising season could be ahead. That’s a lot of ifs, but surely we can't be as bad as we were last season?

Prediction

With a new striker (or two): 5th

Without new strikers: 10th