IF there is a shining beacon of hope anywhere at the University of Bolton Stadium right now, it comes in the form of a fresh-faced Luca Connell.

The current season is unlikely to be remembered with great fondness by those who have watched events unfold over the last eight months, on and off the pitch, but the midfielder’s rise from Under-18s prospect to a bona-fide Championship player has counteracted some of the woe alongside Winter Hill.

Connell was unknown to all but those with detailed knowledge of Saturday morning youth team football until the turn of the year when he was fast-tracked into Phil Parkinson’s first team.

The Liverpudlian has yet to hit his 18th birthday – that comes later this month – but having adapted well to life in the senior ranks, the Premier League scouts who once watched from the side-lines at Lostock are now massing in number in the stands.

Out of contract in the summer and already subject to interest from Brighton and Southampton during the last transfer window, it might be all Wanderers can do to keep hold of a player who has been in their ranks since the age of nine.

Connell wisely avoids talk of the future, as he is still enjoying the present.

Results may not be enough to save Wanderers from relegation but for a teenager looking to make his first steps in the professional game, the experience has been worth its weight in gold.

“I can’t explain how much it means to me,” he said.

“I have been here since I was a young boy and it’s what you dream of.

“When you walk into training and see the older ones – even the Under-18s – you think ‘I want to be playing there.’ But then when you are at my age now and playing first team football it’s a dream come true.

“I can’t thank the fans enough for how they have taken to me.

“It isn’t easy for the gaffer to just throw a youngster into the current position we find ourselves in.

“I have to thank him but the fans have really taken to me – giving me a song already, even – and they have been a great part of the journey so far.

Romantically, Connell got his big break in the FA Cup as Wanderers tapped into a rich vein of goals against League One Walsall in January.

He then turned heads with a delightful assist for Mark Beevers at Bristol City in his first Championship start later that month.

“I can’t explain the excitement,” said Connell of the experience against Walsall. “It was something I was waiting for all my life.

“When the gaffer told me I was going to be on the bench and then shouted my name to come on, in front of all my family, it was just unbelievable.”

Life at senior level does not seem to have fazed the youngster, who had barely had chance to adjust to development squad football this season.

“I have found there is a lot of space on the ball, in my opinion, but saying that, off the ball you can’t switch off,” he said.

“You can’t stop because the teams you are playing will find that spilt second to take advantage of the lapse in concentration and it could mean the difference in the game.

“I had only played five or six Under-23s games and when I moved up to that level I thought it was more enjoyable than playing Under-18s football.

“I just thought it suited me having more time on and off the ball.”

Connell came off the bench on Saturday against Ipswich to put in a solid second-half performance which might just be enough to seal a recall to the starting line-up against Middlesbrough this evening.

Rather than complain about a lack of starts, the teenager is still marvelling at the viewpoint from the dugout as he soaks up his first season in the limelight.

“Even when you are just on the bench and you are watching the experienced ones on the pitch, it’s such a great learning experience to see how they read the game,” he said.

“When you get to physically play against these type of players you realise just how good they actually are.

“Some of them you just can’t get near and that is a great part of learning to deal with these situations.”

In an experienced squad of players, some of whom were already playing professional football before he was born, Connell says he has been given a helping hand to cope with the pressures of life at Bolton.

“All the lads, top to bottom, have taken me under their wing and when I’ve asked them questions they have given me advice, which has made the world of difference,” he said.

“The skipper, David Wheater, has been a big help. I knew he would as he’s been like that ever since I came into the fray.

“Others, like Jason Lowe, have helped too because he plays in my sort of position and is experienced, so I have asked him loads of questions.

“Another one is Joe Williams because we’re both from Liverpool, get along and talk all the time, which helps me out so much.”