Under-fire Bolton Wanderers skipper Zat Knight is standing tall
TO say that 2014 did not kick-off in a good way for Zat Knight would be somewhat of an understatement.
Few, if any, players in recent memory regularly inspire such a strong reaction among Wanderers fans as the big defender but never more so than in the opening 21 minutes of the New Year’s Day draw with Middlesbrough.
Directly implicated in both of Boro’s goals as they surged into a 2-0 lead, Knight’s every touch for 10 minutes thereafter was loudly booed by large sections of the Reebok.
It was an unprecedented response, even in this generally unhappy era at Wanderers, but one that seemed to bring the best out of the 33-year-old for the remaining 70 minutes of the game.
Even by half time the jeers were replaced by begrudging applause. You may argue the damage had already been done – but even the defender’s most vociferous detractors must respect the fact he stood tall in such circumstances when others may have wilted, forcing a change from the bench.
A week later and Knight was again at the heart of a defence that got a thorough examination in the second half by Blackpool; he passed that test too.
Before kick-off there was a fleeting mention of his previous experience against Boro in his column “The Skipper” in the match programme.
“I hold my hands up,” he wrote. “There was some bad defending from myself in the process for one of their goals.”
It may not have been the wholesale admission that some were looking for, indeed, the mix-up between Knight and Andy Lonergan for the second goal of the day was the stuff of schoolboys, but how many other players would have tackled that subject in a programme column, rather than just troll out the same old platitudes?
In the same publication, Knight admitted that this season had been the most difficult of a near 15-year playing career.
Although he has played the last four games for Wanderers, he failed to start 14 of the previous 15.
“I have played a lot of my football at Bolton and this is the first season where I have spent a large spell on the bench,” he said.
“This has been my most challenging season so far as a person and it is a test of character.”
He also added his surprise at the difficulty Wanderers have had since relegation.
“The Championship is a tough division and anybody can beat anybody and personally I never thought it would be that tough,” he said.
“In the Championship you feel as if you are never out of a game. It is not as technical as the Premier League.
“The Championship is certainly more about hard work and grafting from start to finish. It is difficult and we have had to adapt but we are confident of putting a run together until the end of the season.”
Knight is out of contract next summer but has voiced his desire to try and land another deal.
He has stayed clear of injuries as a professional at Fulham, Aston Villa and Wanderers and feels he could play on for another “four or five years”.But with David Wheater, Matt Mills and Tim Ream for company and young Cian Bolger coming through the ranks, centre-half is a relatively crowded position in a thin squad.
Freedman turned to Knight as a trusted lieutenant after the departure of Kevin Davies last summer as his club captain when his stock was arguably as high as it ever had been.
A dominant partnership had been forged in the second half of last season with loanee Craig Dawson and Wanderers had lost in just three of his last 17 games.
It has been a different tale this year, however, and initially paired with David Wheater – who it has since emerged was experiencing fitness problems of his own – he ended up being dropped after six winless games back in September.
That decision, before a 2-2 draw with Derby County, made headlines.
The pairing of Matt Mills and Tim Ream gathered momentum and while manager and players were quick to acknowledge the input Knight was having off the pitch, his time on it was restricted to special teams-style salvos from the bench.
His battle with the boo-boys may be an unwinnable one but such is the influence of the experienced former England international on the squad’s younger players, Knight will play a part in the direction of this season whether his current run continues in the team or not.