JOE RILEY had waited 12 long years to step out at the Reebok as a first team player, and now he’s got the keepsake to prove it.

The Academy graduate, who has been with Wanderers since the age of seven, got his big moment replacing Gretar Steinsson 15 minutes before the end of last Friday’s friendly against Levante.

Clutching his number 39 shirt as he left the dressing room and sporting a beaming smile, there was little doubt how much the appearance had meant to the Boothstown-based defender, who signed his first professional deal with the club at the end of last season.

And first thing Monday morning, Riley was again perched in reception to make sure every one of his team-mates scribbled their autograph on a memento that is unlikely to leave his sight for some time yet.

Former Walkden High School pupil Riley leapt to prominence last season as part of John Henry’s rejuvinated reserve team set-up, and has already shown he has an eye for goal with a brace against Chorley to his name this summer.

And speaking after the game, the 19-year-old summed up how much it had meant to get his first call-up to the senior set-up.

“I found out I was in the squad Thursday tea time when I got a call from John Henry,” he said. “I was buzzing, telling all my family and friends.

“All of my family were at the game, but they are all big Bolton fans anyhow because they live in the area.

“All the lads welcomed me with open arms, so I couldn’t ask anything more. Obviously I was nervous at first, but the players, manager and coaching staff made it easier for me.

“Hopefully it will happen again for me, but I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.”

Riley also had the backing of his team-mates and manager, who were full of praise for the youngster’s rise through the ranks.

“It's brilliant that the gaffer is giving a young lad like Joe his chance,” said experienced full-back Paul Robinson. “We had young Josh Vela on the bench at the end of last season too.

“These lads are class, and I think they showed that at the end of last year for the reserves.

“Hopefully, Joe will push on now and hopefully get a few more chances for the first team, which would be great for the youth set-up here.”

Owen Coyle’s mission statement on arriving at Wanderers a year-and-a-half ago was to kickstart the club’s youth system, and the manager believes headway is being made, as players like Riley, Vela, Mark Connolly and Tom Eaves push their claim.

“It’s good for the fans to see young players coming through, and the lads know they have a manager who believes if they are good enough, they’ll play no matter what age they are,” he said.

“Out with that, you saw the smile on Joe’s face when he came out of the dressing rooms clutching his jersey, it gives the other young players a boost as well.

“Tom (Eaves), Tope (Obadeyi) and Mark Connolly were with us in America, and the other lads see that.

“Now they’re thinking if I play consistently, as Adam Blakeman did at the end of last year, then I can be part of that as well. It sends an important message out.”