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The League One Plan: A Lesson From Southampton

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With Bolton doomed to League One, we look at how they could possibly take a leaf out of the Saints' book

Gareth Bale has been the main benefactor of Southampton's rebuilding efforts since relegation from the Premier League in 2005
Gareth Bale has been the main benefactor of Southampton's rebuilding efforts since relegation from the Premier League in 2005
Alex Caparros/Getty Images

Around 18 months ago I wrote an article exploring the decline of Bolton Wanderers, which clearly went unnoticed by the previous powers that were in charge of the club.

Now, with Bolton having plummeted into the third tier of English football for the first time in 23 years, I feel it's time to address these issues before the club descends even further into the lower reaches of the game.

The Southampton blueprint

In May 2005, Southampton were relegated from the top tier of English football for the first time in 27 years. Just four years later they were relegated to League One, in part as a result of the club going into administration. Fast forward seven years and the club is back where the fans will feel it belongs as a solid Premier League side, despite several summers of wholesale changes and a whole series of significant player sales.

Southampton made their way back to the top not by blowing huge amounts of cash on big name players, despite several takeovers in club ownership. They rebuilt the nucleus of their team and maintained fan support and interest in the team by promoting and advocating youth.

The club trusted in its youth system and produced an incredible conveyor belt of talent, including Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Adam Lallana and Luke Shaw who, despite having all now moved on for big money, have given the club at least some financial stability. The current side contains two current England Under-21 internationals James Ward-Prowse, who has flashes of brilliance, and left-back Matt Targett.

Can Bolton replicate this?

There are clear correlations between Southampton and Bolton. We were relegated after 11 years in the Premier League, didn't have the foresight to think we might not get promoted and paid the price of relegation to League One within just three seasons.

Clearly Wanderers don't have the spare cash to buy their way out of League One next season, but what we do have now - compared to my previous article - is a potentially rich string of young talent. For the first time in some 20 to 30 years we actually have promising youngsters in and on the edges of the first team, and it may be that we have no choice but to build our team around them next season.

In my previous article I discussed the likes of Josh Vela, Zach Clough, Andy Kellett, Joe Riley, Hayden White and Conor Wilkinson deserving more prolonged chances in the first-team following impressive performances for the Development Squad. Clough is now a key player, provided he can stay clear of injuries, while Vela has impressed at times despite largely being deployed at right-back, and the others have either left the club or not developed as hoped.

However, in their place has stepped Rob Holding, who has arguably been our best player this season and must be signed up to a new contract, if he wants to stay. Holding, Clough and Vela will be vital to the new-look Bolton next season, along with the likes of Kaiyne Woolery, Tom Walker and Niall Maher, who will likely get the chance to prove their worth in League One. There's also players like Oscar Threlkeld, who has been in fine form at Plymouth Argyle this season, Alex Samizadeh and Alex Finney, who made their first-team debuts in the past few weeks.

It's going to be a busy summer at Bolton, and it will be fascinating to see how the new ownership go about restructuring the playing squad. Certain players - such as Mark Davies, David Wheater, Darren Pratley and Jay Spearing to name a few - simply have to depart to reduce the wage bill and because they haven't been good enough / clearly don't want to be at the club.

But it's clear that in their place are a number of talented youngsters that will hopefully bring the fight, commitment and willingness to wear the white shirt that has been painfully absent from some of their senior colleagues this season.

There's clearly potential for Bolton to go some way towards replicating the Southampton blueprint. Maybe the likes of Clough, Woolery and Vela aren't on the same level as Oxlade-Chamberlain, Walcott and Lallana, but when Southampton first gave Gareth Bale a start at left-back, who could have foreseen him going on to be one of the best and the most expensive footballer in the world?

The point is that the current crop of youngsters could be our only hope next season, and supporters can't afford to get on their backs when they make a mistake.