I recently started writing another article lamenting a lack of youth products coming through the ranks and establishing themselves in the first team at Bolton Wanderers. It’s safe to say this is a long-harboured gripe for Bolton fans, but I put it on the back-burner when we handed debuts to Luca Connell and Joe Pritchard.
However, today I spotted a statistic that raised serious concerns about the lack of youthfulness permeating Bolton’s struggling squad and ignited the need for this article - which is pretty timely given this week is the EFL’s Youth Development Week.
Bolton have given less minutes to players aged 23 or under than any team in the English Football League this season. Only 1,954 minutes - that’s a total of 21 matches - have been played by players under 23, of which the vast majority are thanks to loanee Joe Williams, who turned 22 in December, topped up by the recent handful of minutes for Connell, who won’t turn 18 until April, and Pritchard, who was 22 in September.
This severe lack of youth is coupled by a worrying overload of age / experience / oldness. Indeed, the EIGHT oldest starting elevens fielded in the Championship this season all belong to Bolton Wanderers, according to data from TransferMarkt.
Bolton are the only team in the league to have fielded a squad with an average age of more than 30-years-old all season - a feat we’ve achieved on five separate occasions. And, of the 50 oldest starting elevens to start matches so far this campaign, 21 belong to Bolton.
Our oldest starting eleven had an average age of 30.8 in the 2-0 home defeat to West Brom last month, in which the youngest player was 26-year-old Sammy Ameobi. That’s closely followed by the 30.7 average age of the players that started the 1-1 draw at Rotherham United, which included Clayton Donaldson (34), Gary O’Neil (35) and Lloyd Dyer (36) among seven players aged 30 or older.
The ongoing youth debate
It’s pretty staggering that Connell has suddenly emerged as potentially our best player and certainly our best, most confident passer of the ball, given he only made his senior debut last month. So you have to question why he’s not played before now - yes, I know he’s only 17 - and, more importantly, whether other players in our youth teams are capable of making the step up.
For example, having seen Clayton Donaldson extend his streak of league matches without scoring a goal to 33 - yes, a ‘striker’ that hasn’t scored in THIRTY-THREE league games - at the weekend, surely there must be a young striker capable of at least threatening the goal?
Bolton’s Under-23s side are currently fifth in the Professional Development League Group A, but have only scored 28 goals in their 20 matches. So perhaps not. However, they did win their league last season led by the goalscoring prowess of Connor Hall, who is now back at the club following a loan spell at Accrington Stanley - in which he didn’t score, incidentally.
I’m not convinced if Hall has what it takes to step up, but surely it’s at least worth putting him on the bench as an option and giving him a chance when Donaldson and Josh Magennis are struggling for goals?
We’ve seen other teams have great success in thrusting young players into the first-team. For example, promotion chasing Leeds United regularly have an array of youngsters in their matchday squad, including the impressive Jack Clarke.
The performances of Connell and Pritchard have proven that the innocence of youth can reap rewards. I firmly believe that their example can inspire other young players, and surely they can’t do any worse than the first-team players who’ve led us to our current plight?
Ongoing youth deprivation
If you’re interested in reading up on other articles we’ve published on Bolton’s ongoing youth issues, then check out the below:
In December 2017, we explored whether the likes of Connor Hall, Jeff King, Jake Turner, Alex Perry and Jack Earing could push for first-team places. The answer was s a resounding ‘No,’ given only Hall and Earing remain at the club 13 months later.
Then in February 2016, we looked at Bolton reaping the benefits of blooding young talents Josh Vela, Rob Holding and Zach Clough, and the next batch of youngsters in Alex Samizadeh, Jamie Thomas, Alex Finney, William Jaaskelainen and Oscar Threlkeld - who have all departed the club three years later.
And that followed this article back in May 2015, which looked at the emergence of Clough and Vela - who were both included a Daily Telegraph list of seven exciting youngsters outside the Premier League - alongside the likes of Tom Walker, Quade Taylor, Threlkeld, Holding, Thomas and Tyler Garratt - all of whom, unsurprisingly, are no longer at the club.