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Bolton Benefiting from Blooding the Youth

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There may have been little option, but we're finally seeing home-grown talent having an influence all over the pitch for Wanderers

Josh Vela is leading the influx of youth at Bolton Wanderers
Josh Vela is leading the influx of youth at Bolton Wanderers
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Throughout my many years as a Bolton Wanderers supporter, fans have lamented the lack of home-grown talent emerging from our so-called youth academy.

Despite the enjoyment we took from having stars like Jay-Jay Okocha, Youri Djorkaeff, El-Hadji Diouf, Fernando Hierro and Gary Speed grace the Reebok Stadium turf, there was noticeable disappointment at the youth intake being limited to club captain Kevin Nolan, the world's greatest right-back Nicky Hunt and every physiotherapist's dream patient Joey O'Brien.

That is until now, with the emergence of a litter of exciting young footballing talent infiltrating the first-team squad at the Macron.

Years without youth

Nolan is arguably the most successful Bolton academy graduate in decades, having become the first player to graduate from the Bolton Wanderers Academy, which was setup in 1998. He made his Wanderers debut in the First Division back in the 1999/2000 season, taking the captaincy from the outgoing Okocha in the 2006/7 season and racking up 345 appearances and scoring 50 goals in all competitions.

Fellow academy graduate Hunt made his debut in the final game of the next season and racked up 161 appearances, scoring just the one goal over eight seasons at the club. O'Brien made his Wanderers debut three years after Hunt and, due to seemingly endless injury troubles, made 70 appearances in seven seasons without scoring and failed to really fulfil his undoubted potential.

The only other player to have graduated from the Academy worth mentioning was Ricardo Vaz Te, who came into the first team having scored freely at youth level but ultimately disappointed, scoring just 7 goals in 78 appearances - of which six goals came in the 2005/6 campaign.

The current crop

Those years of disappointment are beginning to be put firmly to the back of Wanderers' fans memories by the emergence of a new crop of young talent at the Macron. Indeed, with all players fully fit, home-grown talent could fill nearly half the Wanderers starting line-up.

Josh Vela

After years without a youngster stepping up and making their mark on the first-team, the furore when one finally arrived was understandable. Josh Vela, who is still only 22, joined the Bolton academy at the age of nine and arrived on the scene as a highly-rated midfielder, which even attracted a £1 million bid from Liverpool.

That bid was, of course, rejected and Salford-born Vela has gone on to make 55 league appearances for Bolton, both in midfield and at right-back. Having made his debut as a last minute replacement for Mark Davies against Swansea City back in April 2012, Vela was rewarded with his first start in a League Cup game against Crawley in the August of the following season. But his big break was disappointingly cut short as he suffered an injury after seven minutes which kept him sidelined for four months.

It very nearly didn't happen for Vela at Bolton, as former manager Dougie Freedman inexplicably froze the youngster out of contention, even forcing him to train with the club's youth teams. But luckily one of new boss Neil Lennon's first moves was to reinstall Vela to the first-team, and he took full advantage by putting in a string of fine performances that led to him coming second in last season's club Player of the Year award.

He's continued that form this season, and scored his first goal for the club in the 2-2 draw at Charlton Athletic in December.

Zach Clough

Wanderers had never produced a talented, exciting striker in my entire lifetime, until the emergence of Zach Clough. So for us to now have a locally born star in the making leading our line is very exciting.

Clough, who turns 21 next month, joined Bolton aged eight and burst into the first team just over a year ago, scoring the only goal of the match on his debut as Bolton defeated local rivals Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup third round. He then backed that up with two goals on his league debut against Wolves and continued that fine form with a string of good displays, before being cruelly sidelined with a dislocated shoulder in an ill-tempered clash with Reading - having scored five goals in eight league matches.

This season we've seen flashes of Clough's talent, including a brace against , despite him suffering an injury stuttered campaign. The youngster has further cemented Wanderers fans' love for their star striker by rejecting a move to Bristol City in the January transfer window, and hopefully we'll see more of the best of Zach when he returns from his latest injury.

Tom Walker

Walker, who turned 20 in December, got his first-team break last season due to Wanderers' mounting injury problems. He took full advantage and was probably our best player in his 13 matches, which included, like Clough, scoring his first goal for the club against Wigan in March.

This season Walker, who like Vela was born in Salford, has struggled to regain his first-team place, making only one start, five substitute appearances and suffering with injury worries of his own. But it's clear he has talent, and is up there with the best crossers at the club with his dangerous left foot.

Rob Holding

With Wanderers suffering a defensive headache, injuries piling up and with Neil Lennon unwilling to use an actual right-back, up stepped 20-year-old Rob Holding.

Holding, another relatively local lad who grew up in Tameside, joined Bolton at under-8s level and progressed through the ranks to eventually impress with both his defensive work and goalscoring ability at the centre of Wanderers' Under-18 and Under-21 defences.

He impressed on his first-team debut in a disappointing Capital One Cup defeat to Burton Albion, then made his league bow in a tough encounter at Middlesbrough four days later. But since then Holding has gone from strength to strength, looking comfortable in an unfamiliar right-back role and becoming increasingly efficient in the heart of defence alongside Dorian Dervite in recent weeks. He's already made 16 appearances for the club, and scored his first goal with the opener in the 3-1 victory over MK Dons last month.

Kaiyne Woolery

Kaiyne River Woolery, to give him his wonderful full title, joined Wanderers as a 19-year-old from Conference side Tamworth for £10,000 in August 2014. While this technically means the Hackney-born east Londoner is not an academy graduate, his promise certainly warrants him a mention.

Woolery made his Bolton debut as a substitute for Adam Le Fondre in the latter stages of the televised game that saw Bournemouth earn their place in the Premier League in April. Since then he has established his position as the young striker most likely to cement a first-team place, with several promising substitute appearances, his full debut against Wolverhampton Wanderers last week, and scoring his first Bolton goal with a dramatic late winner against Rotherham United on Saturday.

Who's next on the youth conveyor belt?

The first names that jump to mind are of course the much talked about Jamie Thomas and Alex Samizadeh, who have been scoring goals for fun in the youth teams in the last couple of seasons.

Thomas, who turned 19 last month, leads the Development Squad's goalscoring charts with nine goals this season, having scored 15 times for the Under-18s last season. Samizadeh, who is just 17, has already scored three times for the Development Squad after ripping up the Under-18s league with 14 goals, and has been linked with a move to Derby County.

It's not beyond the realms of reality that we could soon see a Wanderers defence made up entirely of academy graduates. Vela and Holding have already established themselves and they could be joined by central defender Alex Finney, 19, who has already been among the first-team substitutes this season. Another one to add to the mix is Oscar Threlkeld, who impressed on a couple of first-team appearances last season and is now on loan at League Two promotion chasers Plymouth Argyle.

One day they could be lining up in front of a very famous Bolton name, with Jussi Jaaskelainen's son William, 17, in the Under-18s squad. While his fellow goalkeeper 16-year-old Jake Turner made his Development Squad debut in a 3-2 win over Sheffield Wednesday last month.

These are just a handful of prospects in the Wanderers' youth sides, which can give fans hope for the future of the club despite the ongoing financial saga.

The impressive performances from Rob Holding and Josh Vela in particular have shown that, in some cases, these young players can make the step up and it's exciting to finally see Wanderers benefiting from their youth system.