WANDERERS struggled to adapt in their first year in the Championship, then flatly refused to start their second; can it really be third time lucky for a team that still seems to be in a state of flux?
After nearly two years of rebuilding, Dougie Freedman is now close to calling the current squad entirely his own.
Gone are many of the big earners who dropped through the relegation trapdoor, a nucleus that the manager once famously said were “simply not good enough” for the football club.
“At last,” he said recently in an interview with The Bolton News. “I’ve now got a very good and honest group of players who are all heading in the right direction, working hard for each other.”
Average age and wage bill reduced considerably, the group left behind no longer carry with them the weight of expectation with which their predecessors were saddled.
Bookmakers no longer make Bolton a promotion favourite, as they have been dubbed for the previous two campaigns; they have now been pinned as mid-table cannon fodder.
Many fans, who like the players and staff at the time believed that the club’s stay in the second tier would only be temporary, have also cooled their jets.
That is not to say there isn’t hope. Without it, this game just doesn’t exist.
But Freedman’s side continues to look like the proverbial jigsaw missing that vital piece. The whole picture simply isn’t visible.
Whether Wanderers will live to regret missing out on last season’s terrace darling, Lukas Jutkiewicz, only time will tell.
It is up front that Freedman’s squad looks most in need of fresh blood and yet 12 months ago we were looking at new signing Jermaine Beckford as the man who could finally break that 20-goal-a-season barrier.
The ex-Everton man top-scored for the Whites last season with nine goals but never quite caught the supporters’ imagination. What Freedman would give for him to embark on one of his scoring streaks from day one this season?
Alongside him, Craig Davies is the only other senior option. For all the Wales international’s strengths, he is yet to show a real knack for scoring in the Championship.
Freedman worked hard last season to establish a sound defensive unit and looks to be making real progress on that front.
Goalkeepers Adam Bogdan and Andy Lonergan enter into the final season of their contracts neck-and-neck for the number one spot.
While Bogdan was favoured for most of the last campaign, a back injury has prevented him from playing over pre-season, opening up an opportunity for his rival to exploit. It is a tough one to call.
The competition is equally fierce across the back four where specialist left-back Dean Moxey has been snapped up to compete with the injured Marc Tierney and Kevin McNaughton brought back on a season-long loan from Cardiff to add stability on the right.
French defender Dorian Dervite was also signed from Charlton, making it an intriguing four-way tussle at centre half.
Both Tim Ream and Matt Mills made giant strides last season, while David Wheater also finished strongly.
Mills would appear to have the edge after being named vice-captain to Jay Spearing, but of all the positions on the pitch, central defence is the area in which Wanderers look best-stocked.
In front of the back four, skipper Jay Spearing has some reliable company in Medo Kamara, Josh Vela and summer signing, Liam Trotter.
But in Freedman’s favoured 4-2-3-1 system, the nagging doubts persist on the attacking front.
Whether the system itself lends itself to goal-scoring football is a matter of debate on the terraces, where a two-man front line, as witnessed in big wins against Blackburn Rovers and Leeds United last season, would be the more preferred option.
Having established that solid base, it seems unlikely that Freedman will change his habits, however, and so the pressure to add goals is transferred to the midfield, where only Neil Danns – now signed on a permanent basis - could really claim to have been a success last term.
There is no shortage of talent at Freedman’s disposal in Mark Davies, Chung-Yong Lee, Rob Hall and the freshly-recruited Liam Feeney, but you sense they are the players who will really have to step up in front of goal if the club is to have a successful campaign.
At its worst, the 4-2-3-1 system can appear static – and Freedman has worked tirelessly on the training pitches this summer to ensure there are more options on the ball.
Movement in the midfield three, who have to get beyond the sole striker as well as offer width to the team, is key for the system to be a success.
Equally, that sole striker has to be able to hold on to possession, something that Jutkiewicz had got off to a tee by the end of last season. Who replaces him is the question on everyone’s lips.
Financially, the club are now clearly operating at a different level than fans have grown accustomed to in recent times.
Premier League parachute payments are now half of what they were 12 and 24 months ago, and the spectre of Financial Fair Play continues to hover over the newly-named Macron Stadium, with enforcements due to come in by the January transfer window.
Word from the club is that they have cut costs enough to avoid any punishments and that situation is unlikely to be risked before the end of August.
The margins are thin, however, and that makes finding the striker capable of making a difference all the more difficult.
Balance sheets are not usually taken into account when a team’s results dip, as they did at the start of last season. A similar start would be unthinkable this time around.
Freedman took plenty of flak last term after a nightmarish start of just one league win in the opening 13 games.
The Scot has since admitted he put too much faith in the players he had inherited from Owen Coyle and taken to the verge of the play-offs the year before, but the slate has since been wiped clean.
The squad now almost unrecognisable from the one that dropped into the Championship, the overhaul is now almost complete; but at what cost? We should find out in nine months’ time.