IF you need a yardstick for how far Wanderers Ladies have come in the last 12 months, you need only to look at their pre-season.

Promoted to the Women’s Premier League for the first time last summer, they will face AC Milan in June and are already discussing a return fixture at the Macron in 2019.

They have a new home, at Atherton Colls’ Kensite Stadium, and a young squad with serious ambition to play at a higher level.

A five-year plan has now been hatched to get Wanderers into the Women’s Super League but you could not back against that happening sooner.

“It is quite remarkable,” said Chris Knights, the former Accrington Stanley coach who took the team on last summer. “We had the five-year plan when I came in but the remit this season was to stay up. To finish fourth, which I think we will now, is absolutely unreal.

“In the summer we’ve been invited to go and play AC Milan. Some monks are putting us up! It’ll be a great experience but it shows which way the club is heading when you can play against a club of that quality. It makes everyone sit up and take notice.”

This season’s success, which has seen victories against the likes of Leeds United and Newcastle United, has been achieved despite wholesale changes to the playing staff.

The team promoted last season gained a level of public interest the Wanderers Ladies had never managed before – but Knights admits the turnover was necessary.

“We only have three players left from the team I inherited, and that’s no disrespect to the girls but, being honest, I don’t know whether we would have stayed up,” he said.

“Barnsley, who were promoted with us, are rock bottom. It’s such a big step up in class.”

Work will continue boosting the club’s reserve team this summer but Knights does not anticipate big changes in the playing squad.

Keeping hold of some of his top players may be easier said than done, however, and he is keen to keep things moving in the right direction.

“We’re now at a stage where we need maybe two or three players for next season but we can focus on this group,” he said.

“We have a couple of players who have been involved at England college level and because we have done so well this season, we’re catching the eye of other players who want to get involved.

“We also know clubs are looking at our players from higher levels but it’s important we build now. I want to keep hold of those players and push on.”

To put the experience in the squad into context, the team which beat Newcastle 3-2 at the weekend had six teenagers, with two of the players aged just 16.

Goals have been supplied regularly by striker Saffron Newhouse, who has a prolific record of 16 in 19 games, with youngsters Ruby Howard and Emma Pilling also making double figures.

But in new surroundings this season, Bolton have also managed to build up a healthy following of supporters in their new Atherton base.

“Colls have been absolutely brilliant with us,” said Knights. “A lot of the lads come down to support us, and vice-versa, and people who live in the area have started to take notice.

“It is a huge, huge pitch – especially with that hill. I’m not so sure some of the girls were that impressed when we first started to play there. But now they love it.

“Now, when away teams turn up at our place they take a look at the pitch and you can see it plays on their minds. It has turned into a huge advantage for us.

“We get loads of messages on Facebook and Twitter from Bolton Wanderers fans who want to see how we get on. They are proud of how we are doing and the fact we’re beating these well-established clubs.”