WHETHER he was the fresh-faced youngster plunged into the middle of a Premier League relegation battle, or the twentysomething chasing fruitlessly against Leeds United, Josh Vela has never been good at hiding his emotions.

When things are not going well, there is a reliable barometer in the facial expression of a player who has been with Bolton since the age of seven. And just recently it has shown little but frustration as both the team and its talismanic midfielder struggle for form.

Vela is no longer the prodigious talent in the Wanderers camp. Recently turned 25 he is a father to be, closing in on 200 career appearances, and approaching the six most important months of his career to date.

He has waved goodbye to team-mates who came through alongside him in the youth ranks and moved on to different climes – Zach Clough, Rob Holding, Oscar Threlkeld – and currently stands alone as the one lasting legacy of the club’s academy which has managed to permeate the first team in troubled times.

Yet the future for Vela is by no means clear. He is out of contract in the summer and considering whether his time at the club he has called home for 18 years has run its course.

Tabloid stories have suggested Wanderers could try and cash in on their depreciating asset next month – but Ken Anderson issued a strong denial, and sources close to the player suggest he has not completely given up hope of earning a new deal.

But this does feel like a crucial juncture in Vela’s story. Restored to the starting line-up for the first time since October on Saturday against Leeds, there were flashes of the old Vela as he chased down and harried visiting defenders in the pouring rain.

Equally, as the game wore on and Wanderers laboured in attack, that heavy cloak of disappointment weighed heavier on his shoulders with each passing minute.

Vela may not have been in the side had Sammy Ameobi not picked up a red card at Norwich. Indeed, there have been occasions he may not even have made the bench had his home-grown status not ticked a box for EFL rules.

With Craig Noone out on Saturday at Brentford, however, and Erhun Oztumer relegated to the reserves on Monday night, there is likely to be another chance for Vela to spearhead a much-needed victory at Griffin Park.

Like Leeds, the Londoners are masters at keeping possession. Unlike the league leaders, however, they have had considerable difficulty keeping the ball out of their own net.

Vela had struggled to find an identity in the team prior to Phil Parkinson’s arrival in the summer of 2016. Fall guy under Dougie Freedman, relief right-back under Neil Lennon, it was only in League One that the Salfordian really found a position in which he was happy.

Nine goals, boundless energy and a promotion meant the smile had returned to Vela’s face for the first time in a while.

Since promotion, however, the midfielder has come to embody the team he represents – an unquenchable work ethic but missing the moments of quality which steal the headlines and earn the points.

Four starts since August have given Vela little chance to change the narrative on what is becoming a sad last chapter in his Bolton story. But as ever with football, there is always an opportunity to provide a twist in the plot.

Parkinson has praised Vela for his attitude behind the scenes and his application in training. The manager seems desperate to see someone grab this fading season by the scruff of the neck, and you could think of no-one better to make a well-timed mark.