END OF SEASON REVIEW: Bolton Wanderers may not be going up or being relegated but it has been an interesting season
HOW do you define a side that simply refused to fall into a category?
Wanderers were the mighty conquerors of Leeds United at Elland Road but also the team that made their worst start to a league campaign for more than 100 years.
They are the side currently on their best run of away form for 13 years but also the one who surrendered so meekly against Reading in a dismal 7-1 defeat at the Madejski Stadium.
Draw a line between the highs and lows and you have an average – and that might be the best way to describe Dougie Freedman’s side at present.
There is no question the side that finished the season was stronger than the one that started it.
Players like Tim Ream and Matt Mills had redefined themselves as Championship warriors, while those previously viewed as saviours, like Chris Eagles or David Ngog, drifted silently into the background.
Some – Adam Bogdan, Jay Spearing, David Wheater, for example, reserved their best football for the last few months.
But for all the improvement, the finishing position of 14th – 13 points off the play-offs and 15 clear of relegation – is less than satisfactory in anyone’s book.
The manager has admitted his own failure to recruit “the right types” as he stuck faithfully with many of the players who had missed out on the top six and a potential Premier League return by a single goal the previous season.
Few could have predicted just how badly Wanderers would start. It must have come as a surprise to Freedman himself.
We knew the club were struggling to come to terms with incoming Financial Fair Play regulations, something that would be underlined when eye-watering £50.7million losses were announced clinically under the radar on New Year’s Eve. The excess baggage Freedman had inherited had proved difficult to shift.
Big earners, signed in the bubble of top-flight football and some in the immediate aftermath of relegation, suddenly looked like millstones around the club’s neck.
They were dealt bad luck, Marc Tierney’s broken leg at Yeovil and Stuart Holden’s collapse on his return in the development squad being cases in point, but injuries were by no means the only cause of frustration.
A 4-1 hammering at Blackburn Rovers brought about the first real indication the manager was not happy with his lot. Making reference to “certain players” who had been told a few home truths, Freedman had already started to separate those who would continue playing for the club, and those who would not.
Once again, he used the loan market to change things for the better.
Kevin McNaughton, Liam Feeney, Neil Danns, Lukas Jutkiewicz, Joe Mason, Alan Hutton – all examples that the Scot certainly has an eye for a player. And yet some will point out that success from October onwards was built, at least partially, on other club’s players.
During November it appeared Wanderers were getting themselves into gear to climb the table.
The football was not always free-flowing, and Whites fans were not shy of voicing their opinion on that front, but results at Bournemouth, Watford and Barnsley indicated things were starting to gel.
Just as quickly as the hopes had been raised, they fell away. Between November 30 and February 11, the Whites won two league games in 14 and teetered just above the bottom three.
McNaughton’s return to Cardiff had hit them hard. The rock-solid full-back earned himself a new deal with the Welsh club but his departure brought about a re-shuffle in the back four that simply did not work.
All of a sudden a relegation fight looked on the cards. A 5-3 defeat at Leicester may have showcased the champions’ class rather than Wanderers’ deficiencies but the 7-1 mauling at Reading proved a pivotal point in the campaign. It also prompted another angry outburst from a clearly-frustrated Freedman – who was by now feeling the full force of the fans’ ire too.
“I still take it for granted that I am in this for the long haul because I am trying to build something up from scratch,” he said. “Along that way you are seeing players who are frankly not good enough for the football club. I have to work with these players and train with them until I can get recruitment in. “I know I have been here 14-15 months but there is still a nucleus of players who are simply not good enough for the football club. And you can’t move them on because football players these days earn that much money, you can’t move them, so you have to work with them. “I’ve seen flashes of good play. But they can’t maintain it.”
At the time, Freedman’s very public condemnation of his players did not seem a wise move, particularly as it took another month for the next win to materialise.
Lukas Jutkiewicz had by now arrived on loan from Middlesbrough and was already winning over the fans with his whole-hearted displays up front. Alongside him, Joe Mason returned for a second spell from Cardiff and quickly forged a decent partnership.
Slowly, things started to improve. Convincing wins over Watford, Blackburn and Leeds gave a very brief glimmer of hope that something could still be salvaged from the season but talk of play-offs was quickly silenced after a 2-0 defeat at Brighton.
But for a 1-0 reverse at home on the night Leicester clinched the Championship title at the Reebok, it would be the only defeat in the final 15 games.
Wanderers played better when the pressure was off but their improvement at the end merely highlighted how poor the opening quarter of the campaign had been.
Things finished pleasantly enough as Birmingham rescued their hides with a last-minute equaliser on the last day, leaving Freedman to rue a record 11th home draw in a single season.
That lack of killer instinct that failed to punish Lee Clark’s Blues on the final day had never really left the team. It was the reason they had registered just two wins against sides from the top half of the table all season long.
The difference between an average side and a good one in the Championship comes down to one of two things: either a goalscorer who always gives you a chance or a mental strength to take points when you don’t deserve them.
At present, Wanderers have neither.