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An Interview with Former Bolton Wanderers Goalkeeper, James Aspinall

Being champions of the Development League, England camps and his thoughts on our current goalkeeping situation.

Development League 17/18 Champion

For the last few decades Bolton Wanderers have done goalkeepers about as well as any other club in England. From finding talented foreign keepers to producing our own, we’ve done it well. With a bumper crop of these keepers a few years ago that included the likes of Will Jaaskelainen (Crewe & Finland U21) and Jake Turner (Newcastle and England U18), James Aspinall stood out. He was called to attend an England youth camp for the best youth goalkeepers in the country and was also considered first choice when Bolton Wanderers U23s were crowned Development League champions in 2017/18.

Crisis soon hit Bolton Wanderers at the end of the Anderson era and Wigan Athletic secured the services of the top prospect (2 clubs, 2 administrations, ouch). Having now been released by Wigan, James has found his search for a new club hampered by Corona Virus shutting down the lower leagues but has kindly offered to talk to the site about his time with Wanderers and Wigan, give his insight to the life of goalkeepers and shared his views on the current goalkeeping situation at the club.

LOVS: Thanks again for taking the time to do this James. First off how long were you with Bolton Wanderers?

JA: I was with Bolton Wanderers for 4 seasons, starting from being an U16 schoolboy. I was first recognised when playing for my high school team in a cup game. One of the opposite strikers had asked me who I played for. At the time it was only Sunday league. He said he was going to speak to one of the coaches at Bolton which was where he was playing. A couple of weeks later I was invited in to training with the team. Thanks to this player, it kick started my career within the professional game.

LOVS: Who was your goalkeeping hero growing up?

JA: Manuel Neuer, Buffon, Casillas etc etc, but for me I think my biggest idol was Neuer and his modern (at the time) style of the ‘sweeper keeper’.

LOVS: Were there any coaches or players’ at the club who really made a difference to your development?

JA: As a goalkeeper, I spent a lot of time with different coaches as well as players. I believe, that Ian Willcock (now at Manchester United Ladies) gave me the foundations and biggest understanding of the game. We were looking at things and taking time after training to look back over clips of our games and seeing whether we could improve my actions. We used to plan graphs showing positive and negative movements within my game and that was were my confidence really improved. Another coach would be Lee Butler (now at Sunderland). I felt like he pushed me to the standards of the likes of Ben Alnwick and Remi Matthews because he knew it was something I was capable of. He also allowed me to go out on to the pitch and warm up with the first team on a match day and I remember being out there and looking around when we played Aston Villa at home. The stadium was packed and I was speaking to the likes of Jack Grealish and Tammy Abraham.

LOVS: Bolton Wanderers have always produced good keepers but it was especially stacked when you came through at a similar time as Jake Turner and Will Jääskeläinen. Do you think having that level of competition from academy up to U23’s made you better?

JA: Ultimately I believe that training and playing for places with the likes of Jake Turner and Will Jaaskelainen made me a better player. The reasoning behind this was because the standard of the group was raised to a good level and you didn’t want to be the one who stood out for being bad. The competition had me getting in earlier in a morning and leaving later in the day. I put in the extra hours and that paid off for me in the end by getting to the level I got to.

LOVS: Was there a friendly rivalry there?

JA: You’re always going to think that when you have someone in the same position as you. The fact there was, was always in my mind made me a better player because I wanted to be the best.

LOVS: Was there something special that the club was doing which produced so many good prospects?

JA: The layout of the club at the time we hit our peak was ran superbly. The players we had were of the finest quality. If someone wasn’t having a good day in training, we’d all make sure that we told them haha. Not only this, the squad wasn’t a team, it was a family. Everybody got along with everybody and whatever happened on the pitch, stayed on the pitch. The socials out of football happened very regularly and it ultimately made us stronger. However, it wasn’t only down to the players. Having the likes of ex-pros as coaches (Jimmy Philips, David Lee, Nicky Spooner, Gavin McCann) made an environment where you always had to perform at a professional standard. If you stepped out of line, they made sure you was told! (I was the victim on a few occasions haha).

LOVS: You had some great moments at the club including winning the development league in 2018. How was that experience?

JA: Winning the league and the national play-offs is still up there with one of the proudest and most special moments of my life so far and I saved a penalty against Millwall at home in one of the last games of the season. The feeling I got when I was named in the starting line up was immense. I've never been as ecstatic in my life.

LOVS: Are you surprised that more of that team didn’t come through at Bolton?

JA: In short, yes I am. There was some fantastic footballers with some brilliant potential and I believe the team we had when we won the league would put up a good test in League 1. Some of the lads have progressed well such as Luca Connell and Dennis Politic but it was always expected they would. You can always tell in training who the proper players were.

LOVS: You also were called up to an England training camp for keepers. What was that like?

JA: It was another proud moment for me. There’s a weird feeling you get when you pull on an England shirt for the first time. The camp included a talk from Chris Kirkland, who gave us all an interesting insight to his life and career. The sessions were in such detail, you couldn’t learn enough. I just wish the camp was longer haha.

LOVS: What was the feedback from inside the club about yourself? Were the managers, coaches and players positive?

JA: The managers when they spoke to me said that my winning mentality, will to win, along with the passion, dedication and positive attitude is what separated me from anybody else. The player’s feedback wasn’t always as obvious but if you had a good day, you knew you had a good day.

LOVS: That camp raised your profile no end. Some of the local press had heard you were rated to beat the competition to break through at the club and you even received public praise from senior keeper, Ben Alnwick. Was that pressure difficult to cope with?

JA: I got a lot of attention, that’s for sure. I received a lot of messages from a lot of people, including people I didn’t know which was a blessing. Knowing Ben had my back made me more confident in myself; in training he would look after me and give me pointers. Usually it would be a nervous task for a 17/18 year old going to train with the first team but he made sure I fit in and I think that helped my learning process.

LOVS: Just how bad was it when the financial s**t hit the fan as a player?

JA: When the financial problems with the club came to light, I knew I was going to be in trouble with it. At that age (19) I wasn’t in much of a stable financial situation and not being paid on time really affected me. The motivation I had disappeared. I sort of fell out of love with the game. It was never about the money but at the end of the day it was a job and I had bills to pay, especially whilst being the only one working in the household. My income was relied on. Joe Pritchard (now at Accrington) came up to me personally to make sure I was okay and he told me that if I ever needed any help then he would do his best. That shows the kind of team spirit that we had.

LOVS: How did the move to Wigan come about? Did the financial situation at Bolton make it a necessity or were you keen to try something new?

JA: So I wasn’t on a lot of money when I was at Bolton which made things more difficult. I’d have loved to have stayed and tried to make it work but my financial situation left me needing a wage. With the embargo, Bolton were unable to offer me something at the time. I spoke with my agent and he said Wigan were interested.

LOVS: Do you feel you really developed during your time there? Any highlights?

JA: Truth be told, I felt like I’d taken a step in the wrong direction at times. After the highs of Bolton and being in and around the first team everyday, it was hard to compete with. I think I played a total of like 8 games for the u23s of which I kept 5 clean sheets (not exact on the figures). I’d been sent out on loan for most of the season with City of Liverpool where I won player of the month. I was trying to ask for a higher loan move at the time but they said they couldn’t get me one.

LOVS: What were the circumstances that lead to your release at Wigan?

JA: I’d known for a long time, even before they told me, that I wasn’t going to get a new contract. The bonds like the ones I had at Bolton with the staff/players were missing. Another factor was they said I should have been pushing for a first team spot, a bit unfair given after they signed me, they signed another 2 senior keepers (David Marshall, Dan Gyollai) which made a total of 4 senior keepers all ahead of me.

LOVS: How has it been since your release? Have you had any interest?

JA: It’s been hard to deal with to be honest. The impact it has had is significant. It a weird feeling when all you’ve known is football, even when your mates have all gone to uni/college. You sort of feel like you’ve wasted time and you need to start right back from the beginning. You do help yourself along the scholarship programme by gaining some qualifications but It’s hard adjusting to a different way of life. I’ve had some interest since the Twitter post I put up. There was nothing in the football league but I had teams such as Connahs Quay, Lancaster and Bala Town just to name a few but nothing has been concrete.

LOVS: How as a keeper do you train by without a club?

JA: Going to the gym, home workouts and playing as much football as I could but with lockdown I’ve not been able to do much. I got in touch with a contact I knew at Chorley FC and did some training down whilst looking for a club. That has fizzled out but I was grateful for the help.

LOVS: Players’ mental health after being released has been in the news a lot recently. How do you feel you have been supported since your release?

JA: Yeah, it’s tough. You get used too a certain way of life and with football there comes major highs that can’t be competed with. When I think back too football, I always think to the day against villa when I warmed up with the first team in a packed stadium and it’s such a humbling feeling knowing I’ve made my family proud just for being there. I’ve yet to find something that’s compared with this. In terms of being supported, I don’t believe I have been really. I’ve had the odd conversation with old team mates but there was never a plan in place for help. A lot of it has come from myself by surrounding myself with the people I can trust and who have my back regardless of my situation and I think it’s that which has made me see light at the end of the tunnel.

LOVS: Goalkeeper Billy Crellin was brought in to be the number 1 but has suffered with mistakes this season. The only options are semi-retired coach/player Matt Gilks and 18 year old Matthew Alexander, the latter of whom hasn’t played in a year (correct at time of writing). In this situation would you as a keeper want to be pulled out of the limelight or is that the last thing you’d want?

JA: As a footballer, you never want to have your shirt taken. You’d do everything in your power to keep it. Even if that means spending extra time out on the pitch or extra time in the gym. You do what it takes. It’s unfortunate for Billy but he’s more than capable to play at this level. He just needs to experience this loss as early as he can to help him progress and have a successful career. I saw that Matt Gilks did well when he started so maybe it could be an option for Ian Evatt right now.

LOVS: Ian Evatt has chosen not to name a sub keeper on the bench several times this year, even as Billy Crellin has struggled. How would this make you feel if you were the 1st choice keeper in this situation. Also how would it make you feel as the 2nd choice not even getting on to the bench?

JA: There’s a mixture of emotions around this. As the starting keeper, you’d feel like you was in the light and there’s no pressure on being replaced. However, there’s also the possibility of thinking about having to really look after yourself well which could add to the stress. If I was the second choice not making the bench, I’d ask the question: Is it tactical? Is it personal? What’s the reasoning? Depending on the answer, I’d work my ass off to be better and do better. I’d want to show off and improve everyday in training.

LOVS: Keepers get a lot more pressure than the rest of the team given how costly their mistakes can be. Do keepers ever get extra coaching on how to cope with the pressure?

JA: I wouldn’t say keepers get extra coaching to deal with pressure. If you’re taking on the role of a goalkeeper, you already know what it’s like to make a mistake. The answer is never ignoring what you’ve done. I always found that the more I understood why I did what I did and how I could fix it, the more I learned and progressed. Pressure as a goalkeeper will always be a thing, it’s just how you deal with it personally.

LOVS: Would you want to come back to Bolton if the opportunity arose?

JA: Yes, of course! I’d be stupid not too. The happiest I’ve been in my career was there, so I believe that it would 100% be the place I’d want to be the most.

LOVS: Bolton will likely be looking for a keeper in January. Would you be ready and confident to play League 2 football?

JA: I know myself and I know how much I love a challenge. No matter if I was lacking match fitness, I’d always say I’m ready! In reality, I’ve had a lack of football recently but in terms of getting me back match fit, I’d definitely step up to the plate.

LOVS: Last but not least, should Ian Evatt and his team look at you as an option to offer competition for the #1 jersey?

JA: I believe that with some advice from my former coaches, they should definitely consider me. I know I fully had the backing of my old coaches and I know in myself that I’d be the hardest working player to enter the building everyday without fail. That’s the type of person I am. So yes, I think they should look at me as an option.