For a player who held the captaincy longer than Jay-Jay Okocha, played six times more for Bolton than Stuart Holden & continued to play despite injury and niggling pain, Darren Pratley will forever divide opinion among Wanderers fans.
Earlier this week it was announced that after seven years at the club, Wanderers Captain Darren Pratley would be leaving when his contract expired at the end of the month.
Darren Pratley joined Bolton for free in the Summer of 2011, having played a huge role in Swansea City’s promotion to the Premier League.
The first three years of Pratley’s time at The Reebok Stadium were largely inconsistent. As Wanderers dropped out of The Premier League and struggled to challenge for promotion, Darren Pratley was used sporadically. When he did play, he had become known as the scapegoat. In many fans eyes, Prats was a one dimensional centre midfielder who would just run around like a headless chicken, devoid of any skill or real quality. If Wanderers didn’t win and Pratley was playing, then it was mainly his fault.
Perhaps his goalscoring prowess for Swansea in his last season at The Liberty Stadium gave Bolton fans the wrong impression of what type of player Pratley was. Ultimately, fans wanted a like for like replacement for the injured Stuart Holden. Darren Pratley wasn’t that player.
In the final year of his original contract, Pratley got a chance to shine under the tutelage of Neil Lennon.
After Lennon’s arrival in October 2014, Darren Pratley’s form soared. Moving out to the left wing, Pratley started scoring goals for fun before and after Christmas. Playing alongside other key players in Chung-Yong Lee, Craig Davies and Josh Vela, Bolton and Neil Lennon steered well clear of the relegation places, climbing to 14th.
Unfortunately, just as Pratley’s best spell for the club had begun, it was over. After picking up a hamstring injury in a 2-2 draw against Wolverhampton Wanderers, Pratley was ruled out for the rest of the season.
With his contract situation in limbo, many speculated as to whether Pratley would remain a Bolton Wanderers player. For his combative and gritty performances, he had deserved one no doubt. Under Lennon, Pratley had the ability to really make a difference for Wanderers.
In the end, having reportedly rejected offers from QPR and Ipswich Town, Darren Pratley signed a new three year deal.
Going into the 2015/16 season, Darren Pratley was appointed Captain. Neil Lennon stated at the time:
“Darren will be our captain this season.
“I think he’s the right age and he’s well respected in the dressing room by the players.
“He’s a consistent performer and he’s coming into his peak years. I think he’s ready for the responsibility.”
The season turned out to be a disastrous one on and off the pitch. Clouded by financial troubles and the lingering threat of administration, Bolton Wanderers’ performances subsequently suffered on the pitch.
Pratley ended up missing two months of the season. When he did return, he was unable to recapture the scintillating form he had at the start of Lennon’s reign. Wanderers certainly missed how excellent Prats had been the previous year.
After the inevitable relegation, Phil Parkinson took over and was tasked with taking Wanderers back to The Championship.
The season presented Pratley and the other remaining players the chance to redeem for the abject performances that had led to the relegation to League One.
Once again, Darren Pratley suffered an unfortunate injury (fractured bone in his leg and ankle ligament damage) during the opening day victory against Sheffield United, ruling him out for what looked like the entire season.
Surprisingly, after undergoing surgery, Pratley returned in March for a match against Fleetwood.
Pratley’s return to the side couldn’t have come at a better time.
Despite being a divisive figure in his years at Bolton, had shown to be the type of player with boundless amounts of energy. A player who didn’t mind mopping up and doing the dirty work if needed.
A player like Pratley offered another dynamic to other midfielders in Wanderers’ squad.
His return just proved how much he wanted to play. It really showed how much he was willing to fight for the club.
Last season was arguably Darren Pratley’s most consistent, both in terms of playing time and quality of performance.
After the introduction of Karl Henry, the pair formed a formidable partnership in midfield. Their tenacity in midfield proved to be a crucial factor in keeping Bolton in The Championship.
Though it may have come as a slight surprise to some, now is probably the right time for Bolton to let go of Pratley. Now 33 years old he can leave with his head held high, knowing his performances last season kept Wanderers up.
Darren Pratley may have been many fans’ scapegoat, but his fighting spirit and workrate was undeniable. He was shoehorned to several positions, from defensive midfield to attacking midfielder and target man.
Never the greatest technically, but he didn’t need to be. Pratley was a player that ran himself into the ground and gave everything he had. After seven years, 202 games & 17 goals, thank you and goodbye.
As Walt Whitman famously wrote:
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won...