An unbeaten pre-season has added fuel to the fire for those Wanderers fans who believe the club should be in the mix right at the top of the table - and Ian Evatt certainly talks the talk when it comes to bold statements and grand ambition.
In short, the promotion buzz word is once again echoing round the streets of Bolton.
After a nightmare first four months and sitting in 19th position in late January, Wanderers finally brought their expectant fanbase the relief they craved - sewing up the final League Two automatic promotion place in sunny Essex. An ‘on-the-beach’ Crawley Town were dismantled 4-1 to herald a swift exit from the division. By securing 3rd, they achieved promotion in the same fashion as their previous visit to the depths of the EFL 33 years ago - when a 1-0 win at Wrexham on the final day nudged Bolton a point ahead of Scunthorpe United and into the league above.
It has been a busy close season at the UniBol. Evatt acted quickly to turn the burgeoning loanee left-sided partnership of Wales international full-back Declan John and dynamic dribbler Dapo Afolayan permanent on three-year deals - moves that cemented the importance of this area in his Bolton master plan. The length of both contracts also marked a change in tack from the new owners, Sharon Brittan and Football Ventures. They’ve clearly been sanctioned with a pragmatic long term view in mind that it may well prove beneficial for the clubs sustainability.
The uber confident former Barrow manager also added League One experience in Will Aimson, Amadou Bakayoko and composed former Liverpool Under-23’s captain George Johnston. He also complemented his array of midfield options with the only thing that was truly missing, in Josh Sheehan’s mobility and artistry. That all this was achieved before the lifting of the transfer embargo, a dark cloud that had hung heavy over the club for five, long years, certainly augurs well.
The Whites can therefore head into the campaign with some optimism but a number of COVID self-isolations have meant a punctuated pre-season for some first teamers. Last season’s POTY Ricardo Santos is a doubt with a knock that’s kept him out of the last two friendlies, top scorer Eoin Doyle has played very little football and a broken metatarsal has dampened the fans understandable excitement of seeing ex-Arsenal academy graduate Xavier Amaechi in action. The England youth international signed on an initial six-month loan deal from Hamburg but his untimely injury has led to Evatt suggesting another attacking signing to compensate is imminent.
As for MK Dons, well, a rewrite! The departure of Russell Martin and with it his process the Dons fans were so encouraged to trust, is a bitter pill to swallow at this pivotal time in pre-season.
A squad had been slowly built in his image, after what has to be deemed a middling 13th placed finish. That it had been newly supplemented by players that should have thrived within his possession-based ideology, mean that a like-minded replacement for the new Swansea manager, and the backroom staff he’s taken with him, is a must.
While Martin’s final game in charge was a chastening 5-0 hammering at the hands of AFC Bournemouth in the Carabao Cup, this group of players have enough about them not to let their heads drop after that result, and the painful loss of their leader.
There is serious quality in the ranks too, with spectacular goalscoring merchant Scott Twine, former Reading youngster Tennai Watson and speedster Mo Eisa coming in permanently over the summer. Troy Parrott, Josh Martin, Ethan Robson and poacher Max Watters have all arrived on loan to adequately replace the departed Cameron Jerome, wing-back Matthew Sorinola and last season’s key midfield man Scott Fraser.
David Kasumu’s energy and poise will compliment Matt O’Riley’s youthful craft in the middle of the park, while at the back a smattering of youngsters with high ceilings such as Zak Jules and Harry Darling perfectly illustrate the depth of talent at the disposal of whoever takes the reigns at Stadium MK. There are doubts as to whether Watters and first choice goalkeeper Andy Fisher will be available for this opening clash, though.
A good game is in the offing between two sides who, perhaps, mirror each other’s approach more than any other in the league. There could well be plenty of goals in this one. An open, free-flowing game for the purists and a high-scoring draw, one that both sides would possibly take before the game.
Afolayan and Sheehan to net for the Wanderers, with Eisa and Twine replying to make it spoils shared in the curtain raiser. 2-2.