Having fought their way back into the Premier League in the first season of our experiment on Football Manager 15, cash-rich Bolton Wanderers had a task on their hands to strengthen and stay in the league. And after a summer, and indeed season, of change, a strong league showing and cup silverware followed.
Having spent £191m to guarantee promotion to the Premier League as champions manager Neil Lennon seemed keen to bring in more new faces and remove some of the old. No fewer than 21 players left the club permanently or on loan, and the manager got his business done early by spending over £40m by the end of June.
In came Dynamo Kyiv's Yassine Belhande for £6m, along with Kieran Trippier from Burnley (£5.75m) and Jordy Clasie from Feyenoord (£7.5m). But the big signing in June was Wanderers' decision to blow £21m to bring in England international defender John Stones.
Moving into July the big spending continued for Wanderers. First came highly rated midfielder Morgan Schneiderlin from Southampton for £25m, and he was swiftly joined by Italy international Antonio Candreva from Lazio for £23m, and hot prospect Luciano Vietto for £20m.
Wanderers' summer spending had now reached £109m and seemed likely to continue, but then something very strange happened. Just weeks before the season started on July 28th, Lennon bizarrely decided to quit his role as manager to join local rivals Blackburn Rovers, who had joined Bolton in the Premier League by gaining promotion through the Play-Offs.
Early Season Form
Managerless Bolton kicked off the season with a 2-2 draw at the previous campaign's title rivals Reading, before a 2-0 victory at home to Swansea City and a 2-1 defeat at Manchester United, through goals from Falcao and Juan Mata sandwiching Zach Clough's reply.
The Whites then went on a seven match unbeaten streak, including a 4-0 victory at QPR and a 1-0 home victory over Everton. Come the end of October they were sitting pretty in fourth place having not had a manager since the start of the season, and finally decided to make an appointment with the arrival of former Ajax man Frank de Boer.
The new man got off to a strong start with an interesting run of games which saw Bolton beat Manchester City 2-1 at the Etihad, then earn draws against Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal. But defeats to Blackburn and Sunderland saw Wanderers drop down to sixth in the league by the turn of 2016.
Winter Transfer Window
Strangely for this iteration of Bolton Wanderers, the club did not make a single purchase during the January transfer window but did send a load of youngsters out on loan.
The big change at the club was the appointment of attacking midfielder Eran Zahavi as captain.
End of the Season
Beginning January in the top six, Wanderers fans would have been full of hope of qualifying for Europe through their league position. Bolton started 2016 in great style with a 3-2 win over Man United thanks to a late Trippier winner, but a dip in form saw the Whites go seven games without a win and drop to eighth position.
Form then picked up with 3-1 win against Stoke City and 4-1 away hammering of Hull City, before Bolton completed a double over Manchester City with a 2-0 win at the Macron. A draw at Arsenal and home victory over Blackburn had the Whites back up into sixth position then suffered defeats to Chelsea and Liverpool.
But then huge change came to Bolton as chairman Eddie Davies left the club as the Whites endured a takeover that saw come in as the new chairman. After seeing his new club draw with Sunderland and Aston Villa, the new chairman bizarrely sacked De Boer and replaced him with Marcelo Bielsa with just one match remaining in the season. Bielsa lsot his first game in charge 2-0 at home to Southampton, seeing Wanderers drop to a final position of ninth on the final day, their lowest league position since September on 56 points and just five points from Everton in sixth place.
Wanderers' late season form in the league could well be attributed to their achievements in the FA Cup. A series of close ties saw off QPR, Burnley in a replay, Wigan and then Reading in a replay to reach the Semi Finals. Up against the mighty Liverpool, Wanderers took a ninth minute lead through Clough only to see Jordan Henderson cancel it out just before half-time. But a 64th minute goal from Zahavi sent Wanderers into the FA Cup Final, where they faced Newcastle.
A bizarre final, which even more bizarrely was Bielsa's second game in charge, saw Bolton lose both goalkeepers, John Ruddy and Ben Amos, to injury after just 30 minutes, which saw captain for the day Clasie move in goal and put in a 7.7 match performance to deny the opposition. Two goals from Clough inside 18 minutes proved enough to seal a first FA Cup success in 58 years, despite an 84th minute consolation from Marcelo Moreno.
That man Clough was once again Bolton's star player in 2015/16. Having claimed the Championship Player of the Year, Clough was duly called up to the England squad. He has gone on to score an amazing 16 goals in 20 appearances for his country, and was part of the squad that won the European Championships in 2016 and was an unused substitute in the final.
At club level, he finished second highest goalscorer in the Premier League, behind only Radamel Falcao, with 19 goals in 37 appearances. Overall, Clough racked up 25 goals, 9 assists and 9 man of the match performances in 47 appearances for Wanderers, at an average rating of 7.59. The diminutive striker is now worth an impressive £31.5m and has developed into a leading forward for any club.
Dutch winger Memphis Depay notched 16 goals and 7 assists 47 appearances, and is now valued at a ridiculous £37m. While Candreva and Vietto both scored ten goals each, and star defender John Stones excelled with an average rating of 7.58 from 48 appearances.
Club captain Zahavi had a season to forget, with an average rating of just 6.42 from 27 appearances.
Youngsters again struggled to make their presence known in the first team. Midfielder Tom Walker was sent out on loan to Swansea, making seven appearances and scoring two goals. Defender Oscar Threlkeld also went out on loan in the Premier League, and had a good season making 27 appearances for Sunderland, while Josh Vela was farmed out to QPR, who finished a place above Bolton in the league, on loan making ten appearances.
In the next episode we'll see how Wanderers build on their mid-table position and how they fare in their European campaign thanks to the historic FA Cup win.