THE last transfer deadline day would have been a hard one to top for Keith Hill and Bolton Wanderers – a club now well-versed in the last-minute trolley dash.

Nine signings had been landed in a frantic 48-hour period back in August, which made for fun and frivolity at the time, if not a full understanding of how problematic it would be to integrate a team of strangers.

This time around a little more logic was applied. And though there may be some debate as to whether the squad is stronger now than it was heading into the month, there is a sense that Hill is starting to link some pieces together with a view to next season, which in all probability will be played in League Two.

On deadline day itself it was a case of three in, two out, bringing the squad to the limit of its 23-man quota imposed by the EFL. Those restrictions will apply until May 2021, so Bolton fans had better get used to them.

The embargo also prevents Wanderers from paying a transfer or loan fee and limits the amount they can offer in salaries – both individually and collectively. As such, recruitment in these parts is not just an exercise in player identification, but a mathematical equation.

Four players came into the month on loan, none would return.

Jake Wright was sent back to Sheffield United and subsequently released by the Blades, Josh Earl returned to Preston before being loaned out once more to Ipswich Town, Thibaud Verlinden was called back at Stoke’s behest and Liam Bridcutt – knowing there was little future at Nottingham Forest – surveyed his options to the last.

That loan quartet was replaced with a quintet. Toto Nsiala, Brandon Fleming, Ethan Hamilton, Kean Bryan and Anthony Georgiou come to Wanderers at varying stages of their career and potentially with different reasons for being here.

Nsiala, who had started out with Everton and carved out a very decent career with the likes of Accrington, Shrewsbury and Ipswich, came in to bolster the centre of defence, effectively replacing Wright.

The 28-year-old has another year to run on his contract at Portman Road but fell out of the first team reckoning under Paul Lambert and faces a rather uncertain future at the club. His strong performances against Bristol Rovers and Tranmere are a good omen for the here and now.

Left-back Fleming came in from Hull City, his hometown club, and his signing certainly brought some questions from the Wanderers faithful. Earl had been sent back to Preston and Adam Chicksen, who had filled the position fairly capably in the opening few months of Hill’s tenure, was told his services were no longer required.

Fleming has stated his intention to return to the KCOM Stadium to fight for his place in the Championship and his sturdy early performances have helped to quell any upset. And in truth, it was probably the return to fitness of Joe Bunney – injured in a car accident just a week after he had signed in August – that prompted the Bolton boss to release Chicksen.

Ethan Hamilton arrived from Manchester United having worked previously with Hill at Rochdale.

He has also settled quickly and with a contract at Old Trafford which expires in the summer the Scottish midfielder looks like he could be a decent investment in the future.

Sheffield United’s Kean Bryan comes in search of regular football and a return to the North West where he cut his teeth in football with Manchester City and spent time on loan with Bury and Oldham Athletic.

It looks at this stage as if he will return to Bramall Lane in the summer but his flexibility across the back line and in midfield could be an asset for Wanderers in the run-in.

Georgiou may be the wildcard of the bunch. Hill’s attack has lacked a certain punch since Verlinden returned to the Potteries and the Cyprus international, on loan from Tottenham, might just replace some of that excitement.

He has another 12 months left to run on his contract with Spurs but after spending the first half of the season with Ipswich the chances of continuing at Bolton beyond this summer are not out of the question.

It is Wanderers’ permanent additions that provide a better barometer of where the club is heading and the path it intends to take.

Early signings Muhammadu Faal and George Thomason played nicely into the revelation that Bolton were taking a new, more data-led approach to recruitment in the future.

Though the term ‘Moneyball’ has been played down, the new arrivals were certainly from the left-field. Rangy striker Faal, picked up from Enfield Town in the Isthmian League, and ex-Blackpool midfielder Thomason, who was playing at Longridge Town in the North West Counties, were not on the radar of most supporters.

And with spaces in the 23 at a premium it was even more of a surprise to see both appear in the matchday squad almost immediately.

Hill gave Faal his debut as a substitute at Rochdale and said he had contemplated starting the 22-year-old. Speaking a fortnight later he qualified the youngster’s position, saying both he and Thomason were “ones for the future.”

In any event, Thomason – who signed an 18-month contract – was sent out on loan to Bamber Bridge on deadline day to create space in the quota.

If those deals had provoked debate, the return of Will Buckley really did set tongues wagging around the UniBol.

In two years under Phil Parkinson the winger had struggled to replicate his best form but when his former Rochdale mentor Hill gave him a short-term deal in August, there was hope his fortunes could be reignited. That was cut short when Buckley suffered a fractured kneecap in October.

After returning as a sub against Burton on New Year’s Day, the 30-year-old talked about wanting to start again at Bolton, using his experience to help some of the younger players in the squad. But just a week later it was confirmed he had been released, alongside Chicksen.

Hill argued that Bolton “must do better” and there had been some concerns over Buckley’s fitness. It was to the puzzlement of many fans that 17 days later the stance had changed, and the winger secured another short-term deal.

Misfortune would strike again, however, as just a few minutes into his first start Buckley fractured his leg in a heavy challenge from Bristol Rovers defender Abu Agogo, putting him on the side-lines for six months.

There was no way Hill or Wanderers could legislate for such an injury, of course, but it did not stop a large section of the support from questioning the wisdom of bringing Buckley back, particularly as he would continue to count on the quota.

The role of Peter Kenyon, the ex-Manchester United and Chelsea chief executive, also came under the spotlight as the days began to tick down on the January window.

An advisor to the board on football issues, the extent of his involvement has not yet been officially explained. Hill says he is comfortable with the new arrangement and its effectiveness can probably be better judged further down the line.

Two more players were added on deadline day on permanent contracts but only after James Weir’s ties had officially been cut.

The former Manchester United and Wigan Athletic man was signed when Wanderers were in administration. Much-maligned advisor Keith Cousins had worked alongside Phil Parkinson to fashion a squad of sorts but when that disintegrated because of the prolonged takeover, Weir was one of the few who did commit to a deal.

He played at Wycombe on the opening day of the season, was the senior presence in the ‘Junior Whites’ and even in the starting line-up of Hill’s first game in charge at Rotherham United. But it was clear he did not fit in with the manager’s plans and just two appearances since late October made him a prime candidate to be moved on.

It had been a similar case for Connor Hall, who had it not been for injury at the start of the season would have got a run in the inexperienced Bolton side. He was loaned out for the rest of the season to Chorley, which takes him to the end of his contract, and in all likelihood his time at the club.

Uncompromising Irish centre-half Ryan Delaney was a regular under Hill at Rochdale and in signing an 18-month deal he is very much a player you would expect to find on next season’s team-sheet.

Jacob Mellis is another player well-known to Hill and his assistant David Flitcroft from his time at Barnsley and Bury.

On the footballing front, the midfielder is a decent fit, providing instant competition for the likes of Jason Lowe and Luke Murphy. But his future is made complicated by the fact he is currently on bail and facing charges of GBH and assault.

Though the player denies the offence and will face trial in November, the legal issues present a very obvious hurdle for his footballing career which contributed to Mansfield Town’s decision to release him.

How his time at Wanderers pans out in the longer term may be out of his and Bolton’s hands but for the next few months at least he can count on playing League One football for two coaches he trusts.

Hill leaves the January window with more options in his squad, more of the competition he has craved, but whether it boasts the quality to win games consistently is up for debate.

The responsibility for goalscoring has been shouldered primarily by Daryl Murphy, who has eight to his name. 

Based entirely on a story from Nottingham, Bolton fans wondered if there would be a romantic return for Zach Clough on deadline day, which never materialised.

His City Ground team-mate Bridcutt was definitely a target that Hill pursued, but the midfielder chose Lincoln City as his preferred option, leading Wanderers towards Mellis.

Given their embargo and current league position, the Whites were always going to be a hard sell this season, and the practical realities of life at this level may not be easy for some supporters to stomach. But that should change in the summer – and with many more contracts coming to an end there should be more freedom for Hill to fashion his squad, embargo or not.