Here at LOV, we try and predict each year how the season will pan out for Bolton Wanderers. Sometimes we’re spot on, most of the time we’re not.
We’re a little late looking back at the season, whether it be down to work commitments, exams or just spending a bit too much time back in the pub.
One thing we all guessed correctly (because it was the obvious choice) was Eoin Doyle finishing the season as top goalscorer. The Irishman found the net nineteen times in his debut season for Wanderers, the best scoring season of any Wanderers player since Michael Ricketts fired Bolton back to the top flight twenty years ago.
Many of us also predicted an automatic promotion finish, with Lee, Reece and Ian among those who correctly stated we would occupy 3rd place. Lee even correctly guessed we’d go up at Crawley! What we obviously didn’t see coming was how the season would go. We went from Ian Evatt having the worst start to any managerial reign in the clubs’ history to one of the greatest second halves to a season we’ve seen. To go fourteen games unbeaten was just a wonder to see and to think back that at the end of January we were 19th is just so bewildering now. It was definitely the most enjoyable end to a season we’ve had in a long while. Despite not being able to see the players in action live this season (bar those lucky few who went to Cheltenham and Carlisle), the bond between the fans and the club hasn’t been stronger.
Unfortunately, where we predicted wrong was who we thought would be the key players and signings of the season. Players like George Taft, Liam Gordon, Billy Crellin, Brandon Comley and Ali Crawford were all mooted to play integral roles in Wanderers’ campaign, though sadly we know that wasn’t the case. Sometimes, it just doesn’t work out. Crawford was the first player who re-signed last year and there was a swell of excitement seeing him spearheading the Wanderers midfield. Though he just couldn’t replicate the sort of form he’d shown under Keith Hill and ended up leaving to reunite with him at Tranmere. Crawford, like Comley and Gordon are all still under contract for next season and could well play a role in League One. We’ll have to wait and see.
Much has been said about how disappointing Wanderers’ summer business was & how different it was when Evatt had full control in January. MJ Williams, Declan John, Kieran Lee and Dapo Afolayan played huge roles in our incredible turnaround & it’s great that we’ve managed to bring back Dapo on a permanent basis.
So, chosen by Lee, here are our end of season award winners -
Player of the Season:
I think that the form Ricardo Santos showed in November, allied with a season where, after a truly awful start to his life at the club, you could definitively pinpoint the games where he was below his best (at home to Newport and Port Vale and at Grimsby) means that he edges out veteran defender Alex Baptiste for my own personal award, who in my eyes was the stand out performer since our campaign turned round in late January.
Santos confounded the doubters who cast shade on the likelihood of a player signed from the National League stepping up a level, despite numerous games for Peterborough in League One. As the season went on he firmly put to bed the debate as to whether he could handle the pressure of being a vital cog in a club of our size.
The early signs looked a little grim. A three man backline that had started pre-season so well all of a sudden looked at sea as 8 goals were leaked within a week against local rivals Wigan and Crewe. By the time Forest Green came to town, any confidence they’d gained had been eroded. The belief in Billy Crellin ebbed and the defensive unit played without communication, leadership or any sort of coherence. Santos’ display in the home defeat to Newport was nothing short of calamitous. Yet that the Portuguese-Londoner was the first player to put his metaphorical head above the parapet and start to play himself into form, culminating in that run of four consecutive league wins in November, is to his immense credit. He managed to turn his reputation around while no doubt getting to grips with playing for a new club, with new teammates, manager, formation and in a completely new area for him and his young family to settle into in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, preventing him from gelling with his new colleagues. Yeah, pretty impressive indeed Rico.
His new contract in January was just desserts for his displays and his partnership with Baptiste was the foundation on which HMS pi...(you know the rest) was finally steered back on course. The core elements of a defender who can ply his trade at a much higher level are there. Recovery pace, a great diagonal ball, the ability to stride out of defence past opponents and thus opening up the pitch, brute strength, a thunderous clearing header and of course his height make for a formidable profile. If he can add further leadership qualities that had started to emerge as the season progressed, increased concentration, remove a tendency to dwell on the ball for a dangerous amount of time, work on his ability when dragged into channels by hard working centre-forwards, improve on his overall positioning and add goals from set-pieces (ok, that’s a pretty comprehensive list!) then he has the tools to go to the Championship at least.
Young Player of the Season:
There is little doubt that the official club winners of these two main awards were the right call and while there was little to no competition for the winner of this award, it doesn’t belittle his contribution to the side since his debut on the 1st December in the abomination against Port Vale. George Thomason started the season on loan at Bamber Bridge and ended it a League One player, with a fresh contract and a burgeoning reputation as a reliable, forward thinking and above all, team player. His displays in crunch away six pointers at Forest Green, Salford and Morecambe illustrated the faith Ian Evatt has in the 20 year-old and I just hope our mooted summer recruitment in his area of the pitch doesn’t mean vastly reduced playing time for George. This would be a crying shame for me as he has shown that he has the in-game intelligence and the capability to learn and improve quickly, which bodes well for his development with the club.
The one facet to his game that I consistently noticed was his innate awareness to, more often than not, pick the right option for the team at that point in the game. That string to his bow is a hard one to teach. His work-rate is infectious, those looped passes into players in space, while a little aesthetically strange in their execution, always seem to hit the mark and where the opportunity arises, he is always looking to break opposition lines with his passing.
There are things to work on, sure, such as his quite arduous turning circle and his propensity to use his right foot for standing on only but these can be improved upon with astute coaching. For someone who has jumped 6 tiers or so from Longridge Town after his release from Blackpool’s academy, his upward trajectory as a footballer has been simply astounding and joyous to witness. If there’s one thing we can thank Keith Hill for during his ill-fated reign, it was taking Lee Ashcroft’s word that this chap has something. I’m just glad he got his chance and hasn’t he taken it with some aplomb!
Goal of the Season:
There weren’t many long range humdingers to speak of this season, just Declan John’s right foot smash vs Stevenage after Dapo’s lay-off and of course Arthur Gnahoua’s comeback-sealing winner in Mansfield from the edge of the area that come to mind. Most of the goals that live in the memory were well-constructed team passing moves, Sarcevic’s strike to finish off Scunthorpe after Isgrove’s dummy, his goal from 20 yards after a 19 pass move against Cambridge at the Abbey Stadium and Eoin Doyle’s emphatic volley at Forest Green after Nathan Delfouneso’s burst past his marker and pin-point cross all stick out in the mind.
For me, the one goal that I will remember for decades rather than years was another Sarcevic goal, one that brought about such palpable relief, a real cathartic ‘Yessssssss’ yelped from the bowels of my lungs as he walloped his effort beyond Glen Morris in the Crawley goal. The conviction in his run after being released down our left flank by Declan John was superb. He had eyes for only one thing, as he cut inside two floundering Red Devils’ defenders. It was a real statement of intent that we weren’t going to let promotion slip again and because of that, allied with the quality of the goal itself too of course, I can’t look past it as our goal of the season.
Signing of the Season:
Despite almost the whole squad being new signings as we embarked on only our second ever league campaign in the bottom tier of the football league, I am picking one of our January recruits to win this particular award. On the D3D4 YouTube season review I plumped for Declan John as it was an early indicator of our intent for the January window that we had picked up someone who had a far loftier CV than League Two and he showed why for the most part. Yet on reflection, I feel the one player who made the most discernible difference to the side was his partner in crime down the left flank and someone who has made a more-than welcome permanent return to the club last week, in West Ham loanee Oladapo Afolayan.
To be top of the divisional successful dribbles statistics after only half a season perfectly shows what kind of player ‘Dapo’ is; a fearless and exuberant dribbler who is a diamond in the rough but with the wherewithal and brains to improve further and grow with the club. His selfless and exciting playing style consistently opened up space for others to thrive and he was mightily unfortunate not to open his account earlier than the final day at Crawley, when his tap-in from Gethin Jones’ cross-cum-shot must have released a pressure valve that was close to exploding within the 23 year-old trickster. Again, there are a multitude of facets to his game that he can enhance but I have every faith that he has the dedication and the will to do just that and I am beyond excited to see Dapo strut his stuff in the flesh.
Forget B-Tech Okocha, we have a star man playing for the Whites. His name is Afolayan and he is indeed dynamite.
Game of the Season:
There have been many contenders for this award, granted, mainly from January onwards. The win at Mansfield felt at the time and absolutely turned out to be a huge turning point for our season, as were the two scrappy 1-0 wins in a matter of weeks over Southend at Roots Hall and over Barrow at the UniBol, both settled by Shaun Miller’s predatory instincts. The one game that stood out to me though as a real illustration of our intent to not just push our way into the play-off reckoning but plant our foot firmly into the automatic promotion race was the 2-1 home win over Cambridge United, who sat 2nd in the league as we kicked off that Tuesday evening.
A performance of verve, vigour and attacking intent yielded only two goals and ended with us hanging on due to Matt Gilks’ handling error gifting U’s full-back Kyle Knoyle a goal back when the game was approaching 80 minutes, yet the nature of that display at last gave me the belief that we could certainly make ground on the top three, and quickly. I was completely correct in my thinking, as it transpired!