Bolton Wanderers’ opening fixture against Watford on Saturday will mark the Trotters’ third season in the second tier of English football, and will have fans hoping for improvement on a disappointing last campaign which saw a 14th place finish; their lowest standing since 1994.
Whilst Wanderers started with ambitions of the play-offs, a dire start to the season, with no wins after their first ten games, saw the opportunity diminish almost immediately, meaning the club ended up only managing a mid-table finish. However, manager Dougie Freedman will be looking to put last season out of his memory, with an altered squad following a busy transfer window.
The recently renamed Macron Stadium has seen a large personnel change since the close of the 2013/14 season with the permanent departure of 15 players, including former captain Zat Knight and Premier League bound Marvin Sordell, whose loan spell at Charlton Athletic was sufficiently impressive to persuade his former manager Sean Dyche to take him to newly-promoted Burnley.
As a result of Knight leaving, midfielder Jay Spearing will take up the armband, with Matt Mills becoming his vice-captain.
The nine incoming players, all from Premier League or Championship clubs, were all signed on free transfers, as the club look to combat their debt, which stood at a deficit of £164m at the end of 2013.
Bolton’s pre-season took them on a tour of Sweden and Norway, to face Brøndby, Vestsjælland and Mjällby, before returning to take on a host of lower league sides in July. A 1-0 defeat to Dutch side Vitesse Arnhem was the solitary fixture at home, whilst seven games on the road yielded three wins, three draws and a loss.
Away from home was where Bolton seemed to be more comfortable last season, with eight league wins, compared to six at the ground then known as the Reebok Stadium. Whilst their form in the Championship was inconsistent, they were able to record home and away victories against Watford despite finishing below them in the table; winning 1-0 at Vicarage Road and 2-0 at The Reebok.
In fact, Bolton hold an impressive record over the Hornets; only losing twice since the 2000/01 season, from a total of nine games.
Bolton’s season looks hard to gauge; whilst recruitment has not been extravagant, it has been efficient, with seven of the nine players signing before July 3, which indicates a strategy in place that Freedman is comfortable with.
Like always, reaching the play-offs will be difficult to achieve but a top ten finish is an attainable goal, providing that Jermaine Beckford has his shooting boots on. With Bolton’s obvious weakness lying in the attacking third, responsibility will fall on the striker’s shoulders, unless Freedman is able to strengthen his options up front.
Beckford was one of three players to score seven in the Championship last season, but with the departures of Lukas Jutkiewicz and André Moritz, the former Wealdstone striker’s form is seemingly imperative to any success Bolton will have.
Wanderers look likely to line up in a 4-2-3-1 at Vicarage Road, with a number of injuries within the squad stopping Freedman from having the full complement of players to choose from.
Goalkeeper Adam Bogdan looks to be only fit enough for the bench following a back problem, as well as a question mark about the fitness of defender David Wheater following a calf tear sustained in training. Josh Vela (knee), Stuart Holden (knee) and Marc Tierney (broken leg) will all miss out.
Possible line-up v Watford: (4-2-3-1): Lonergan; McNaughton, Mills, Ream, Moxey; Spearing, Medo; Chung-Yong, Pratley, Danns; Beckford.