Home Stories Wonderkids 2011: The Great Bolton Experiment - Part 3

Wonderkids 2011: The Great Bolton Experiment – Part 3

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Catch up on the first two parts of this series: Part 1Part 2.

Out With Old, In With The New

With Elmander outscoring all but one man in the Premier League last season, he became one of Europe’s hottest properties. And at 31, I felt he’d reached his peak transfer value, so when Lyon came knocking and offered £12m for the Swede, I snapped their hand off. The transfer would end up working out for the both of us, I had extra funds to strengthen my youthful squad of up-starts and Elmander continued to play regularly for Lyon until he ultimately retired aged 36, scoring just shy of 100 goals.

Abdulla Al Ramen set his season expectations, they were ambitious, but he was willing to financially back me up. Offering a transfer budget of £60m for a top 4 finish and progressing to the knockout rounds of the Europa League. The first port of call for me would be a new striker, I had to replace a man who, last season, scored 27 goals for me and the fans were far from pleased with my decision of who I bought in, at least until they saw him play.

Beasts From The East

My scout out East came up trumps once again, finding three outstanding attacking talents. Ji Dong-won grabbed the attention immediately as an out and out number nine for Chunam Dragons. I can hear you already, shouting, ‘But Darren anyone can score 30 goals in the K-League.’ Whilst that’s probably true, Dong-Won had attributes that would make most Premier League strikers envious. He wasn’t the quickest, but what he did have was agility, balance, first touch and crucially, long shots stat of 17.

I negotiated a tough deal with Chunam, not that I needed too, but I was determined to build this squad on the tightest budget possible. £750k plus add-ons of up to £500k landed me the Korean U21s Captain, it wouldn’t take him long to carry favour with Wanderers faithful.

The first game of the new season saw us against Lancashire rivals Manchester United, a team of legends, with Van der Sar, Ferdinand, Evra, and Vidic providing a brick wall for Rudenok and Traore to smash against. Wayne Rooney opened the scoring early on with a 20-yard thunderbolt and it was quickly followed up by a Cristiano Ronaldo free-kick (His stay at Madrid had come to an end after just 3 seasons). 2-0 down going into half-time I took a risk, I switched formation, overloaded my midfield and went with a loan striker option, it was time to introduce Dong-won to the Reebok.

From the start of the second half, it was clear the tactical change was working, we were winning the midfield battle and Rooney was afforded few opportunities to increase his tally and then Dong-Won came into his own.

Sigurdsson, the architect of what would prove to be an incredible 5-minute hat-trick. The first goal was a simple through ball in behind the defence and Ji dispatched it with a chip over the imposing Edwin, from the kick-off, we pressed quickly and regained possession, this time Gylfi went out wide and slammed the ball across goal to onrushing Dong-won for number 2 and his third was by far the best.

Ji Dong-Won liked playing with his back to goal, one of those traits I never fully understood, until now. He turned Rio like he was Hairpin on the Monaco racetrack, and hit the most perfectly straight shot right into the top corner from near 30 yards. 3-2 and the final whistle fast approaching, but there was still enough time on the clock for former United academy starlet Ravel Morrison to dribble his way past three almost static Red Devils before putting the ball low into the corner, 4-2 final score, Ji Dong-Won had announced himself to The Premier League and The World, but he was not the only Beast to arrive from the East that summer.

Lazar Markovic and Gabriel Torje were brought in to add width, I couldn’t keep relying on Palitsevic to be the creative outlet down the touchline. A combined £2m was enough to secure the two from Partizan Belgrade and Dinimo Bucherest respectively, whilst it didn’t work out for them in this year, their first season, they became mainstays of my squad going into season 5 onwards. Markovic, specifically, I have a vivid recollection of him scoring the winner in the 2020 Champions League Finals against Juventus.

Strength in Numbers

For any team trying to compete on four fronts, Premier League, Europa League, League Cup and FA Cup, it’s about the strength in depth that you have. Injuries to crucial men in the middle or your star striker will undo a strong start to the season quick. Reinforcements in that respect came in January, I’d started well and the whole group used the Manchester United result to propel them into December undefeated, top of the League and through to the knockout stages of The Europa. Ji Dong-Won, Alexy Rudenok and Lamina Traore responsible for near 50 goals between them, with Siggurdsson, McCarthy, Morrison and Josh McEachran the creative driving force behind the end product. Ravel Morrison particularly was chipping in with goals as well as assists, bagging his tenth goal of the season going into the busy Christmas period.

Progression in the League Cup was easy to come by too, breezing through to the Quarter-Finals with wins over Reading, Walsall, Crystal Palace and West Brom, conceding only once. Tom Eaves a real-life Bolton Academy product was my go-to man when my main three were in desperate need of rest, chalking up six goals over the four rounds.

The Europa League proved to be a sterner test, with Napoli, Borussia Monchengladbach, and Marseille in my group we finished top by a single point above Napoli. They too just two points above the other pair in a well-contested group.

Next up was Valencia who’d narrowly finished third in their Champions League Group. The game would provide my young squad with a tough battle if we were to progress beyond the round of 32, so the decision was made to spend in January and bring in some more Wonderkids, doubling up in some positions, providing depth and secondary options mid-game.

The signings came thick and fast, the deals were done quickly too and by the end of the first week on January, I felt I had a squad capable of maintaining the fight on all four fronts as well potentially win Bolton’s first ever Premier League title.

Connor Wickham was first on the list, the Ipswich youngster had impressed in the Championship, almost single handily bringing The Tractor boys close to a return to the promised land in both of the previous season. He had a number of suitors and going into January had 6 months left on his contract, with Ipswich unable to maintain the challenge for the play-off places this year, it was time for Connor to step up, £1.5m plus near £4m of added value got the deal done.

Next up some extra widemen, as previously stated Markovic and Torje were slow to get off the mark, so bringing in competition for the roles seemed sensible, I reckon this was the catalyst, particularly for Markovic, that kicked the previous pair into high gear. Juan Iturbe, who the media labelled the next Lionel Messi was snapped up for a £1m plus percentage of next sale (Boy did that pay off four seasons down the line, when I sold him onto Real Madrid in excess of £30m, little ol’ Quilmes of The Argentine Premier Division, received near £8m in additional revenue) and Yoric Ravet from Grenoble for £2m, many of you won’t have heard of Yoric, but he was seen as the next big French talent on FM11, think Kylian Mbappe and you’ll get the idea of how good people thought this guy was going to be in real life. Whilst it hasn’t worked out for him just yet, a move to the Bundesliga after scoring 36 and assisting 54 times in 136 Swiss Super League appearances may well put him on many peoples radar.

I also added numbers at the back, as much as I didn’t want to unsettle the established order, two new wingbacks were in desperate need as Palitsevic and Riberio were struggling to keep up the energy and pace of playing 3 times a week. Omer Toprek, Lucas Digne, and Daniel Adejo all signed within a day of each other and settled quickly.

An Unprecedented Run

As the Valencia game drew ever closer and the calendar became more and more congested, the side started to falter, we hadn’t lost all season and it was now the end of January, we made it to the League Cup final on the strength of Tom Eaves goals, which earned him a new contract, I didn’t know it at the time but come the summer he’d start 3 successive years out on loan, before cementing a first-team place in a Nottingham Forrest side that would regularly trouble the top end of The Championship table.

The Final against Chelsea presented me with a problem, do I stick with Eaves and the other cup run boys, or do I go all out to win the game and defend our League Cup win from last season?

I decide on a compromise, Eaves would start the game, but the Central Midfield pair of Dan Gosling and Tom Cairney were benched in favour of the prolific Morrison and my uber creative Gylfi Sigurdsson, it paid off big time.

Morrison, Crestig, and Siggurdsson dominated the middle of the park, kept Chelsea quite the whole game and allowed Tom Eaves to step up and score an 88th Minute Penalty after Gabriel Torje was brought down in the box through on goal.

It would prove to be a good practice game just 4 days prior to a first leg home victory over Valencia, 2-1 and we progressed again in the FA Cup to the Quarter Finals after destroying West Ham 5-0 in the fifth round, a rematch against Chelsea 4 weeks later would be the prize. First, though, we had to go to Valencia and desperately try not to concede, or at least score ourselves. I did not expect what happened next.

English Invasion

Unsurprisingly we sold out our Away ticket allocation taking 4,000 Lancastrians to Spain’s Balearic Coast, I was determined to give the travelling support everything they deserved and let it show in my media appointments and my team talk.

It served the purpose and fired the boys up so much that when they went out on to the pitch all the nerves of Valencia holding an away goal over us melted away as we went in search of our own quickly, and in doing so I discovered a defensive weakness. Remember when I pointed out Ji Dong-Won’s 17 Long Shot Attribute, well for good reason, Valencia weakness was that whenever Bolton were in possession, they dropped deep and packed men in and around the box, desperate not to concede. It had the opposite effect, Ji Dong-Won had space to manoeuvre in the hole, 20-30 yards out and he took advantage for the first time 20 minutes in when his wand of a left foot smashed one in the top corner from 23 yards, he doubled up just shy of the half-time whistle, this time from 18 yards, Valencia capitulated after the second goal as they now had to score. The second half they pushed forward, the defence and midfield pushing ever higher, but to no avail. Any time McCarthy, Morrison or Sigurdsson got the ball they were just a through ball away from total disaster, that moment finally arrived in the 63rd minute and Ji Dong-Won secured his hat-trick, this time from a more modest 12 Yards. I brought him off to a standing ovation and provided Tom Eaves with a treat, an almost thank you letter for carrying us through the League Cup when nothing was expected of him, his first foray into European Football.

It took him all of five minutes to make a permanent mark in The Europa League record books, scoring Bolton’s 4th and 5th Goals, prior to conceding a Valencia consolation, these wouldn’t be last of Tom Eaves goals in Europe, but they would serve as an open farewell letter to the Bolton faithful that had followed his progress from u18s to First Team hero.

The Beginning of a Legacy

The FA Cup Quarter Final vs Chelsea provided my Bolton side with the first loss of the year a 90th-minute goal for Frank Lampard in what proved to be his final contribution at Chelsea, they’d eventually lift the trophy at the season curtain closer in May. Deep into March by this point, we’d all but secured the league title, 12pts clear with 8 games left to go, we’d reached the Europa League Semi-Finals after beating Bordeaux and Sevilla in the round of 16 and quarters respectively, before being totally run over by an AC Milan Side that contained Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo, experience showing youth how it’s done, with a 6-2 aggregate win. Tom Eaves played his bit scoring in a 2-0 win over Bordeaux and two goals in a 6-4 aggregate win over Sevilla.

Alexey Rudenok and Ji Dong-Won battled it out for The Premier League Golden Boot and not for the first time, but it was Lamina Traore that would snatch the honour away with three consecutive hat-tricks in the final three games of the year. Yes, I may have sent him up top on his own, to make the race for the boot more interesting, but never did I expect Traore to close an 8 goal lead in the final three games, let alone win it.

These first three seasons had everything for me, games we should have lost but somehow won, games we should have won that we lost, Trophy wins, League wins, European Campaigns but most pleasing of all was being able to do it all by spending just over £40m (although with add-ons over the years coming into play, it was closer to £60m) on a squad with an average age of just 21.

What’s the old saying? If you’re good enough, you’re old enough.

Over the next 32 Seasons, More Premier League success would follow, winning the title 16 additional times, The League Cup didn’t leave Bolton until 2018, and despite a near 10 year run of the worse luck in the competition, I’d go on to win it another five times before retiring. My first Champions League Trophy came in 2020, thanks to that Lazar Markovic winner, it would be the first of 12 as Bolton challenged Real Madrid for the moniker of most successful team in Europe. The FA Cup for some reason always proved very tricky for this side, I don’t know what it was about it, but winning it just four times in 35 attempts tells its own story.

Have you ever had a save last this long and what weird and wonderful things happened in your version 15/20 or 30 Seasons in?

There are many, many sideline stories that came from this save. like Ravel Morrison becoming England Manager, Alexy Rudenok, Juan Iturbe and Ji Dong-Won winning The Golden Ball and South Korea making it to a World Cup Semi-Final.

I think it could make one hell of a book, now there’s an idea!

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