First place – Josh Vela

THOUGH Dougie Freedman insisted he was giving youth a chance at Wanderers, his viewpoint became rather a contradiction by the time his managerial spell came to an end in October.

True, he had given out more debuts to homegrown players than anyone in the club’s recent history; in fact five academy players got their first taste of senior football under his stewardship.

Precious few of those debutants ever felt comfortable calling themselves a first-team player, however, and the Scot’s lack of faith in youth quickly became a stick with which terrace critics could beat him.

Appointed with one eye on the players he helped to bring through at Crystal Palace, Freedman vowed to do the same at Bolton.

Yet very early in the piece he started to question the quality of player coming through the club’s academy system, and by extension the coaching therein.

An internal, unspoken divide built-up between first-team and junior level and did not disappear until he walked out with assistant Lennie Lawrence, first-team coach Curtis Fleming and controversial development squad coach Jamie Fullarton.

The mood outside first-team level had deteriorated to such an extent that Wanderers faced losing a generation of homegrown players before Neil Lennon stepped in to end the civil war.

Those players who had dipped their toes into senior football but then found themselves banished to the periphery again were welcomed back, instantly and very publicly, by the Northern Irishman.

And that decision might well prove a very significant one in the future of Bolton Wanderers Football Club.

Within months we had seen Zach Clough, Oscar Threlkeld and Tom Walker given their chance. Max Clayton – Freedman’s last signing – also provided a breath of fresh air.

No-one, however, proved the previous manager wrong more than Josh Vela.

Vela got his first taste of senior football in the Premier League days, brought in to ease the crippling injury problems which had mounted for Owen Coyle at the time.

Chances under Freedman were few and far between. Vela played just four Championship games for the Scot, his progress also stinted by a serious knee injury and a broken foot.

Freedman accused Vela of not fulfilling the promise that once saw him subject of a £1million bid by Liverpool aged just 16.

“I was told when I came to the football club that Josh is a really exciting player,” he said. “But I’ve told him straight that I don’t think he’s fulfilled his potential.

“Since I have been here I don’t think I have ever seen Josh string a good number of games together or completely see that potential."

Vela found himself loaned out to League One strugglers Notts County in March to, in Freedman’s words, “fight in the trenches.”

Reports from Meadow Lane were encouraging but when the youngster was interviewed in-house by the Magpies, his declaration that he was looking to go back and command a regular place for Bolton the following season was viewed very dimly.

Freedman had questioned the younger’s attitude and his departure in October is unlikely to have been mourned in the Vela household.

Enter Lennon. Vela was drafted in for his first home game in charge as a makeshift right-back – hardly ideal for his return to the big time but a chance he grabbed with both hands.

Though raw at first, Vela’s defensive positioning improved quickly. Physically, Championship football was never going to be a problem for a lad forged from Salford steel and his tenaciousness quickly made him a fan favourite in Lennon’s early games.

Perhaps recognising a bit of himself in the 21-year-old, Lennon soon saw Vela’s value in midfield and switched to a back three in the New Year to try and give him more opportunity further forward. If anyone required evidence of the youngster’s talent, simply watch the two FA Cup games against Liverpool and see why the Merseyside press were so impressed.

As injuries piled up, Vela was back and forth between roles, but few have shown more consistency in the last few months of the campaign.

It has emerged Vela signed a contract extension last season – making his isolation under Freedman all the more difficult to fathom. Quite why the club were not singing that one from the rooftops, only they know.

If Lennon can keep Vela fighting fit next season it will be a major step forward for the club, who have waited far too long for one of their own to command such an important role.

You sense after a breakthrough season, this is not the last we’ll hear of Josh Vela.

Second place – TIM REAM

BRANDING Tim Ream as a square peg in a round hole seems unfair in the extreme.

In what has been a turbulent couple of years for Bolton Wanderers, the erudite American always seems to be in control, no matter which position he has played.

Last season’s player of the year has provided an excellent case to reclaim the trophy. While not quite at the same level as 12 months ago, Ream remains the most consistent player in the Wanderers squad, bar none.

After showing he could cope with the Championship’s demands last term filling-in for the first time as a left-back, the 27-year-old no longer appears like a player out of position.

It seems likely, however, that Ream will return to centre-half next season as Lennon looks to bring in a specialist full-back.

His outings in a three-man defence have been encouraging, bringing out his natural instincts as a sweeper and ball-player at the back, not to mention an under-estimated burst of pace.

Ream has also been moved in front of the back four on occasion and should Lennon decide a four-man defence is the way forward, this may be the American’s route into the team.

Every good squad has a Mr Reliable and while Ream took a while to adjust to football on this side of the pond, there is no doubt he currently fits the bill for Wanderers.

With a bit of luck that will also prove to be the case back home in the US, where international recognition has been slow to materialise considering the player’s form in the last two years.

Overlooked for the World Cup last summer and used sparingly by Jurgen Klinsmann in Europe-based friendlies, much to the chagrin of Lennon, there is a growing clamour from the States to see Ream get more of a chance on the international scene.

If the German coach needs a recommendation, then there are plenty of Wanderers fans who would be happy to provide one.

Third place – DARREN PRATLEY

HAD Darren Pratley not joined the long queue outside the Wanderers medical room in January he would have been a shoo-in for the club’s end-of-season awards.

Everyone likes an underdog and considering the battering the midfielder has taken from managers and fans alike in his three years at Bolton, he might argue he is due some good luck.

Pratley found himself in a familiar position at the start of the season under Dougie Freedman, axed from the Championship line-up after the 3-0 defeat at Watford on the opening day, he didn’t string two starts together again until Neil Lennon’s arrival in October.

And like a few others, that’s when Pratley’s season – his whole Bolton career – kicked into top gear.

The goals, which had been a hallmark of his time at Swansea, suddenly started to appear and the 29-year-old led the scoring charts with Matt Mills by Christmas thanks to some blockbusting strikes against Millwall, Blackburn, Huddersfield and Sheffield Wednesday.

His athletic style appealed to Lennon who was demanding a more mobile midfield and contributed to the departure of club skipper Jay Spearing.

But a serious hamstring tear in January ended Pratley’s heart-warming comeback tale in its tracks, perhaps for good, considering his contract is up in the summer.

There may have been times when Wanderers fans would have been happy to see the midfielder part company but not so at present. One hopes he gets a chance to claim the over-due accolades next season.