Bolton Wanderers are back in the Europa League with ambitions of making the step back into the Champions League and chasing a record high Premier League finish in the next two seasons, having shaken off the shackles of their recent transfer embargo. Luckily for them they have the world's most expensive player - Zach Clough.
The summer of 2018 saw Wanderers yet again switch managers, sacking Ernesto Valverde and replacing him with fellow Spaniard Julen Lopetegui.
Following a season void of any signings in 2017/18, the new manager reinvigorated the club's big spending policy to bolster the squad. In came Colombian striker Victor Ibarbo from Fiorentina for a cool £19.75m and Anderlecht's defensive midfielder Tiemouie Bakayoko for £10m. This duo was joined by 'mini Fellaini' Axel Witsel from Zenit for £8.25m and young forward Santi Mina from Celta for £8.75m.
As the transfer window began to crawl towards a close, the new manager made additional purchases in the form of Porto's Brazilian striker Carlos, who had signed from Atletico Mineiro one year previously, for a huge £32m, and Barcelona midfielder Sergi Samper for £22m.
On deadline day itself Lopetegui remembered he needed a defence and signed Juventus' Martin Caceres and former Chelsea man Kenneth Ormeruo from Atletico Madrid. This took the summer spending spree to a mighty £132m.
Sales were inevitable and homegrown players Tom Walker, Conor Wilkinson and Jamie Thomas were sold to Blackburn Rovers, Leicester City and Scunthorpe United. Big money signing Luciano Vietto was sold on to Barcelona for a mere £6.5m, representing a £26m loss, while Lasse Vigen Christensen, who had signed for £10.75m in 2014, and Roman Zozulya, who signed for £21m the same season, were allowed to leave on free transfers. Safe to say the new Bolton board does not have the same penny counting concerns of the current incumbents.
Wanderers began 2018/19 in fine fettle, only losing three times before Christmas and looking like real title contenders. They also progressed with ease from their Europa League group, winning every match in their group against PSV Eindhoven, Zurich and Torino. Indeed, the side only lost once in all competitions between the start of October and early January, when they were dumped out of the FA Cup Third Round by Manchester United.
Wanderers rebounded from the FA Cup exit by reaching the Capital One Cup Final, but were defeated 3-0 by Manchester City thanks to goals from Christian Eriksen and deadly strikeforce Paco Alcacer and Kevin Volland. Wanderers' fine cup pedigree was also on show in the Europa League, where they also reached the final only to be defeated 4-2 by Zenit. Zach Clough's brace wasn't enough to see Wanderers through, as a brace from Hulk and goals from Diego Rubio and Felipe Gutierrez saw the Russians celebrating.
In addition to the fine cup form Wanderers' league performances were impeccable, winning seven straight matches between February and mid-April. But then the end of season draw specialists reappeared and the form tailed off as the European football seemingly caused a distraction. But Wanderers qualified for the Champions League again by finishing in fourth position for the second time in three seasons, despite scoring two less points than the previous two seasons and finishing 17 points behind Man City, who defended their title.
Summer Transfer Window
Having spent big in the previous season, Lopetegui narrowed his targets to three names as he bolstered his side for another Champions League challenge. He brought in Everton midfielder James McCarthy, who had now turned 28, for £19.25m, Czech right back Pavel Kodarabek from Roma for £14.25m and Real Madrid goalkeeper Ruben Neves for £17m.
This summer also saw another raft of big money flops leave the club on free transfers, including Nick Powell, Jordon Ibe and Tiemoue Bakayoko.
This season can be known for one thing and one thing only: the true landing of Zach Clough. The striker, who turned 25 during this campaign, smashed an amazing 33 goals in 38 Premier League appearances at an average rating of 8.33 and racked up 16 man of the match performances and four Player of the Month awards. He also scored 7 goals in 10 matches in Europe - notching 43 goals and 13 assists in 54 appearances in all competitions. This blistering form saw Clough named the English Footballer of the Year, and he's now worth a whopping £54m.
At international level, Clough broke the England record for most man of the match performances in a season, with 5, and the country's record for goals in a season, with 10. He has now scored 42 goals in 54 appearances for his country and is just 7 goals behind Bobby Charlton's national goalscoring record, which still stands as for some strange reason Wayne Rooney retired in 2018 aged just 32 having tied Charlton's record. He is now a 34-year-old Director of Football at Sheffield Wednesday.
On the pitch Clough's greatness led Wanderers to new heights as the club finished second in the Premier League, just six points behind champions Liverpool, who also won the Champions League. It wasn't all joyful though, as Wanderers found themselves languishing in 10th position in early December and Lopetegui bizarrely found himself sacked. The board acted swiftly and brought in former Chelsea midfielder and interim manager Roberto di Matteo.
di Matteo instantly got it right at Bolton, incredibly winning his first ten league matches and only losing one match for the rest of the season - ironically a 3-1 defeat at Chelsea. Highlights of the season included an incredible 5-1 Bolton win at Old Trafford, with Clough and Carlos both scoring two and Memphis Depay adding a fifth to humiliate Manchester United, followed by a 4-2 home win over Arsenal in the next match, in which Clough again scored twice and Depay grabbed a brace.
Wanderers' league form may have been blistering, but they fell at the first knockout hurdle of the Champions League with a a 5-2 aggregate defeat to Bayern Munich - mainly thanks to 4 goals from Robert Lewandowski.
However, the side put a couple of cup hoodoos from the previous season to bed as they collected the club's first ever League Cup trophy, defeating Manchester City in the semis and Liverpool in the final, in which Clough scored twice and young prodigy Connor Matthews scored the vital fourth.
Aside from the amazing Zach Clough, Wanderers other key man has been Morgan Schneiderlin. The French midfielder finished the 2019/20 season with 15 assists, the most in the Premier League. Clough's strike partner Carlos finished the same season as the fifth top scorer in the league with 20 goals, earning him the Young Player of the Year award.
Memphis Depay once again impressed with 23 goals and 14 assists in all competitions, while John Stones, Steven Caulker and Joel Matip were the backbone to a rock solid defence that conceded a league low of 42 goals in 2019/20.
A little more promise than previous seasons saw a real threat of youngsters breaking into the first team. Connor Matthew scored 45 goals in 60 matches for the Under 21s and scored in the Carling Cup Final but has yet to make his league debut. Meanwhile, 17-year-old left-back / left midfielder Hayden Peters made seven league appearances for Wanderers in the 2019/20 campaign, as well as notching 31 assists in 42 games for the Under 21s side and playing four times for England Under-21s.
The latest on the Wanderers conveyor belt of talent could well be 16-year-old Manchester born forward Jimmy Rimmer, who has set his sights on a place in the first team in the coming years.
Clough has obviously gone on to greatness, and the only other note of interest is that Tom Walker, having been sold to Blackburn, is now in the England squad and has 3 caps and 1 goal. He's not very good though.
English Football Landscape
With the clock now fast forwarded to 2020 it's worth taking a look at the English footballing pyramid for the biggest movers and shakers. Aside from Wanderers, the biggest talking points are Reading and Brentford, who finished the 2019/20 campaign in seventh and eighth position in the Premier League respectively.
Aston Villa got relegated in 2019/20, along with Brighton and perennial yo-yo team Hull City, while Manchester United have had a fall from grace and finished the season in a lowly tenth position.
No current Premier League side has drastically declined, with Leicester City the most lowly positioned in 17th in The Championship and Swansea City also finished 15th in The Championship. New Premier League boys Bournemouth (who obviously started this game as a mid-table Championship side) have just been relegated to League One.
Success stories elsewhere include Oxford United, who finished fourth in League One and were narrowly beaten to promotion in the play-offs by the pie boys of Wigan Athletic, while Walsall have now established themselves as a low-to-mid table Championship side. Additionally, FC United have just earned their place in the Football League for the first time by winning the Vanarama Conference, in which they had been joined by our local rivals Bury.
In the next episode we'll jump to the end of the 2020/21 season to see if Zach Clough can break that England goalscoring record and cement himself as the greatest English footballer of all time, at the age of 26.