The fruit of Bolton Wanderers' youth system has largely been rotten apples rather than fresh new talent for supporters to get excited about. Up until this season only Kevin Nolan, Joey O'Brien, when he had the audacity to be fit, and everyone's favourite right-back Nicky Hunt can really be considered players that have come through the ranks and become first-team players.
But all that has changed this season as new manager Neil Lennon brought no fewer than six young players into the first team, with several becoming first names on the teamsheet every week and others showing plenty of promise for next season.
Perhaps the most exciting story at Bolton this season has been the emergence of Zach Clough. The forward, who turned 20 in March, was handed his debut by Lennon in the FA Cup Third Round clash with local rivals Wigan Athletic back in January. He duly marked his debut by scoring the only goal of the match, and quickly built on that by scoring an additional five goals in 11 further appearances. He also won the penalty that gave Wanderers hope of knocking Liverpool out of the FA Cup in the next round, which led to so-called pundit Mark Bright disgracefully labelling the young talent 'a cheat.'
Clough's sudden burst onto the scene doesn't just have Wanderers fans excited. He was named in The Daily Telegraph's best seven young players outside the Premier League, and the paper's list of the 35 hottest prospects in England. His season was cruelly cut short by injury in the home game with Reading, and had that been avoided Clough would surely have been our top scorer and probably our player of the season.
Close behind Clough in the excitement stakes is 21-year-old Josh Vela. Lennon plucked the midfielder from reserve squad obscurity where he was on the verge of leaving Wanderers having been ostracised from the first-team by his dimwitted predecessor. Despite his early season woes Vela has become a first-team regular, making 36 appearances and put his name in the hat as a contender for our player of the season, despite largely playing in an unfamiliar right-back role.
Vela was also named alongside Clough on The Telegraph's list of seven youngsters outside the Premier League, and his performances this season - especially when utilised in his preferred midfield role - give us plenty to be excited about. For the first time in years we now have two young, talented home produced players that we can build a team around, with several other youngsters keen to emulate them.
Leading the 'next generation' of Bolton youngsters is 19-year-old Tom Walker, who came into the side as a result of Wanderers' injury crisis and quickly established himself in the starting eleven. In his 13 appearances Walker displayed his ability to knock a good cross into the box and, like Clough, scored his first professional goal against Wigan. He's also shown a degree of adaptability by filling in at left wing-back despite not being the best defensively, and his performances earned him his first professional deal at the club last week.
Walker was in the Bolton side that made the FA Youth Cup quarter-finals two years ago, and scored a hat-trick in a 6-4 victory over Tottenham Hotspur during that run. He's far from the finished article and needs to bulk up a bit and improve his stamina if he's to truly establish himself as a first-team player, but his form in his rookie season certainly suggests he is an excellent prospect.
We've also seen a couple of young defenders put their names forward to Lennon as candidates to become regular first-team players. 20-year-old Oscar Threlkeld, having made his debut towards the end of the previous campaign, made seven appearances this season and particularly impressed in the 2-2 draw with Brentford. While 21-year-old Quade Taylor, who signed for Wanderers having been released by Crystal Palace last summer, impressed on his debut at the heart of the Bolton defence in the last game of the season against Birmingham City. Threlkeld and Taylor could have a huge opportunity next season with the departure of club captain Matt Mills this summer, and it'd be great to see one or both step up as a regular starting centre-back.
There is also more talent behind these youngsters on the conveyor belt, including Andy Kellett, 21, who should return to the club after his bizarre loan move to Manchester United, 20-year-old striker Kaiyne Woolery, who signed from non-league Tamworth last summer and made his first-team debut as a substitute at Bournemouth last month, and Hayden White, also 20, who has yet to make his presence felt in the first-team since signing from Sheffield Wednesday despite making four appearances this season before being sent out on loan.
In addition to giving Walker his first professional contracted, Bolton have also agreed first professional deals with Rob Holding, 19, Channing Campbell-Young, 18, and Yvan Wassi, 18. Holding has recently been on loan with Bury aiding them in their promotion from League Two, while Campbell-Young and Wassi have impressed in the development squads but are yet to make first team appearances. Wanderers have additionally offered a professional contract to goalkeeper Harry Campbell, 19, and scholarship extensions to three 18-year-olds Tyler Garratt, Chris Cvetko and promising striker Jamie Thomas, who has scored 32 goals for the Under 18s side in the last two seasons and scored a winner for the Under 21 side against Blackburn last month.
Given Wanderers' much publicised financial woes the emergence of this new wave of promising young talent is certainly very timely. Southampton are a great example of a club that have progressed as a result of producing great young players. The likes of Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were produced by the club then sold on for massive profit, helping the club rise from floundering in League One to threatening to qualify for Europe through their current league position.
With a bit of luck our own young players will hopefully help Bolton climb out of the tricky position we've been in for the past few seasons and give supporters something to cheer about.