It’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling as if every season is likely to be a struggle for Bolton Wanderers, but their recent Premier League history doesn’t really bear this out. After they returned to the Premier League in 2001 they struggled for a couple of seasons but, broadly speaking, they have had a decent record since then, managing four consecutive finishes in the top eight during the middle of the decade. Even last season, they pulled clear of the relegation places during the second half of the season and ended up nine points clear of the relegation places, in fourteenth place in the table. Bolton Wanderers supporters will probably be looking for a season of consolidation and improvement over the coming nine months, and there is nothing to suggest that their team won’t be capable of exactly this.
To this extent, their appointment of Burnley’s Owen Coyle in January can be seen as something of a success. His signing of Jack Wilshere on loan from Arsenal was a particularly inspired choice, but Wilshere will be an Arsenal player again this season and Bolton’s attempts to sign him on a permanent deal at the start of the summer had the resigned feel of a club that felt as if they didn’t properly expect to tempt him away from The Emirates Stadium in the first place. This needn’t be a cause of major concern for them (although they are still lacking strikers to partner captain Kevin Davies), though, because they have made a couple of handy signings during the summer break in the form of Martin Petrov and Robbie Blake from Manchester City, two highly experienced players, as well as the Spanish defender Marcos Alonso from Real Madrid.
So, a team that spent much of the second half of next season improving and a clutch of decent signings over the course of the summer. Bolton Wanderers should be on for another season pushing for a place in the middle of the Premier League table and with a fair wind behind them they could even push for a place in the Europa League, couldn’t they? Well, perhaps, but it may even be the club’s own supporters – or at least a proportion of them – that will need the most convincing that this sort of improvement isn’t beyond their team. The Bolton fansite The Wanderer’s forum section is labelled with the following tag-line:
Where fellow sufferers gather to share the pain, longing and unrequited transfer requests that make being a Wanderer what it is.
If this is an accurate representation of the mind-set of their support (and a cursory look at their forum would seem to indicate that it is), it is a healthy dose of realism borne out from nine – soon to be ten – consecutive seasons of Premier League football. Yet recent history tells us that they are only little more likely to struggle against relegation than they are to have at least a chance of European football. Moreover, the team that Owen Coyle has built is plenty capable of playing attractive, passing football into the bargain. For all of the concerns that some Bolton supporters may hold over shortcomings of their team, it’s likely that there will be plenty worse teams than theirs in the Premier League this season. It is difficult to envisage that they will become embroiled in a relegation battle and a season of mid-table obscurity may be what they have to look forward to this year. Meanwhile, how far they can progress in the cups may well depend on how seriously Owen Coyle decides to treat them. Will the old chestnut of the Premier League being the be all and end all be dragged out once the draw for the Third Round of the FA Cup is made in December?
It is, however, worth taking a look at their main shortcoming – attack. Kevin Davies remains their main striker, but he has scored just thirty-two Premier League goals in one hundred and thirty-two games over the last four seasons. The Croatian international Ivan Klasnic has been mentioned in dispatches after his year-long deal at The Reebok Stadium last season and he is currently a free agent, but his wage demands are understood to be high and Coyle could certainly be forgiven for believing that he can find better value for money elsewhere. Money is the key to many of the shortcomings that Bolton may prevent Bolton from fulfilling the promise that their talented midfield shows. Bolton had the fourth lowest average attendance in the Premier League last season, and this has an affect on how the club can perform in the transfer market. A new striker might sharpen their attacking edge, but their conservatism in the transfer market – especially in the summer of a World Cup, when it is easy to be swayed by a handful of good performances and transfer costs become astronomical, is understandable.
With the dark days of the Gary Megson era already a rapidly fading memory, this season is a proper test for Owen Coyle as well. Having taken Burnley into the Premier League and stabilised Bolton last season, his stock continues to rise and he continues to seem to want Bolton to play attractive football. After Megson’s time in charge of the club, this may come as something to a surprise to their supporters but, with a subtly strengthened team and a resumption of hostilities with Blackpool to look forward to, they may have a thing or two to look forward this season. We shall have to wait and see whether they are feeling a little more sanguine once the nights start drawing in.