PAUL Jones can empathise with the youngsters who were fast-tracked into the Wanderers first team ahead of schedule this season.

At just 17, the Ellesmere Port-born defender was plunged into senior football alongside a handful of other teenagers for a league game against Sheffield United in 1971.

Seven of the starting line-up named by Nat Lofthouse, which has passed into folklore among the Bolton fans, was aged 20 or younger; one of them, Paul Fletcher, supplied the winning goal.

Indeed, it was regarded by most as the youngest-ever Wanderers team until earlier this season when the side that drew 1-1 against Coventry City was found to have a combined average age of just 19.

Some of those players have now dropped down to Under-23s level to continue their development while others, like Sonny Graham, Dennis Politic and Yoan Zouma, continue to push a senior claim.

Jones, who was back at the club to meet with some of his old Burnden team-mates on Saturday, is backing Keith Hill to pick the right time to push them into regular football.

“It’s the same situation we were in,” he told The Bolton News. “A lot of the senior players were coming past their sell-by date but a few of them stayed in and looked after us, which we really appreciated.

“You get an understanding. And after about 12 months playing at that level you realise you are not a lad anymore; you are a man. They don’t realise how quickly it will happen.

“Nat Lofthouse threw us in, so you don’t argue with him, but the manager (Hill) will know what team to pick and whether he needs to pick the same lads week-in, week-out.

“The younger lads will get an understanding, learn how to win and lose.

“Nowadays the younger players have it good, certainly better than we did. There were no classes back then. You didn’t come in every day.

“My first training session was when I signed as an apprentice at 16. I’d never done that anywhere else but now there are academies where you learn how to be a footballer and I think it gives them a chance, football-wise. Physically, they are trained to be an athlete.

“When I made the step up I’d been playing in the Wirral at with Scousers who threatened to break my back, so I learned how to handle myself.”

Jones won two promotions with Bolton and developed into a player with international aspirations. Alas, and to many a Burnden regular’s chagrin, he was never capped despite being called into a squad by Don Revie.

A defender very much in the modern mould, his casual style came across in the dressing room too, and Jones believes it helped him acclimatise quickly to the demands of senior football at the time.

“I was very rarely nervous about anything,” he said. “Nothing really fazed me.

“I don’t think I ever heard a team-talk because my way of dealing with nerves was going to sleep.

“There was no point the manager telling me what to do because I’d have done my own thing. I had a different attitude.

“People would say about an opponent ‘he’s a good player’ and I just shrugged my shoulders. I did it my way.

“They’d be slapping my face trying to wake me up. I think they thought I was lazy but I wasn’t, I had a brain, and that saved my legs.”

Jones is happy to see things at Bolton Wanderers have calmed after the takeover in late August by the Football Ventures Consortium.

“The way things have been going over the last few years it has, at times, not looked too clever but fortunately and fingers crossed they have got people in now who’ll make sure what happened in the past doesn’t happen again,” he said.

“The situation is a bit difficult not knowing what is going to happen but at this moment in time they look like they have got the right man for the job.

“From what I can see this is a great opportunity for those players, particularly the younger ones, because nothing is expected of them. Hopefully it will work in their favour.”