With the return of football this weekend is the return of Scout File, writes Tom Morton.
It’s hard to preview a match when none of the season has been played so of course most of this is speculation. That said, Away at Bolton is probably one of the most challenging fixtures you could ask for this season. Most of the League predictions mark the Trotters for automatic promotion this year. It is what it is, however, and as their aptly named stadium says: Toughsheet.
This is a resurgence for a team who not so long ago looked like they might fold completely. Relegated in the curtailed 19/20 season (one in which we thrashed them 5-1 at the Bank) the Trotters have turned it around earning promotion back to the third tier and finishing ninth and play-off semi-finalists in quick succession.
Joiners and Leavers
Coming into this season, Bolton have bolstered their squad. That includes former Imp Dan Nlundulu who joined the Trotters on loan at the tail end of last season, appearing thirteen times and scoring once. Manager Ian Evatt obviously rated Nlundulu’s performance because they’ve shelled out a fee to bring him over from Southhampton permanently. It’s fair to say Dan wasn’t a household name during his sixteen appearances for us in 2021 but since then the 24-year-old has had a decent spell at Cheltenham Town and looks to have grown as a player.
Bolton have also made changes between the sticks, releasing both of last season’s goalkeepers and bringing in two new faces. Their number one appears to be former graduate of Chelsea’s academy, Nathan Baxter. Since 2016 he’s had loan spells all the way from the Isthmian League (which feeds into National League South), National League, and tiers 3 and 4. For the last two seasons, he has been on loan at Hull City in the Championship, making twenty-eight appearances and by all accounts doing well. Released by Chelsea over the summer, on paper this is a good signing for the Trotters.
Most of the other outbound players over the summer are bit-parters who have come to the end of their contracts. However one big name, from Bolton’s point of view, is losing defender MJ Williams to MK Dons. Williams is a handy defender who joined the Trotters for their League 2 promotion season and is likely not a player they would choose to part ways with. However, he was entering the final stages of his contract so they likely had to take a fee when they could.
One face we won’t see again this season is Dapo Afolayan. The forward was Bolton’s top scorer in 21/22 season, but Imps fans will most remember him for his assault on Sorenson at the Bank in January this year. Afolayan received a 3-match ban for the incident, but it seems like he was already on his way out the door as he transferred to FC St Pauli (a Bundesliga side) on the 19th of January. Probably for the best.
Bolton’s pre-season has been fairly uneventful and not really indicative of anything. They thrashed League 2 Bradford early on, drew with a decent Everton side, and ended the warmup period with a 7-goal “thriller” against Championship West Bromwich Albion. As these are friendlies don’t read too much into it, apart from the West Brom game where both teams fielded strong sides. We probably saw a good chunk of the Trotters’ starting lineup in that game, which suggests Nlundulu will start alongside old-timers Dion Charles and Kyle Dempsey.
Charles will be a real threat to watch on Saturday; he put away sixteen goals last season and is the sort of player you feel is hitting his peak. Dempsey is in a similar position, having joined Bolton at the same time as Charles. He isn’t as prolific a goal scorer but represents a serious challenge in midfield. Both players scored in Bolton’s 4-0 win in the Papa Johns Trophy final, all the way back in April.
Head to Head
Head to head generally the Trotters come out on top. Realistically Bolton are a serious team who were in the Premier League for eleven years in the early part of this century, reached the league cup final, and were a solid Championship side until tripped up by financial problems in 2015. Since our return to League One we have, excluding the 5-1 routing, generally been on the losing end. Even going further back, wins against the Trotters have been rare on the occasions they’ve dipped into the lower tiers. They knocked us out of the Leyland DAF Cup (pre-cursor to the EFL Trophy) in 1990 and prior to that we played them on and off over the decades. In total, we’ve won only seven of our twenty-five engagements.
Tomorrow will be a tough test to start the season, with expectations high & our performance against the top teams a highlight of last season, some might be disappointed not to get a result. But there is no denying the quality and depth in Bolton’s squad and they will be there at the sharp end come the end of the season.