THERE won’t be many bigger Wanderers fans in the stadium on Saturday than Luke Joyce… And worse still, he’ll be wearing a Port Vale shirt!

The 33-year-old midfielder, who still lives in Atherton, grew up in a Bolton-mad family and watched the White Hot years from the Great Lever End at Burnden with his dad.

Released by his hometown club as a 10-year-old and rejected again after a trial two years later, Joyce came through the youth ranks as a late bloomer at Wigan Athletic to carve a football career with the likes of Accrington Stanley, Carlisle and the Whites’ next opponents, Vale.

This weekend will be the first time he has played against his boyhood club and though Joyce will leave his allegiances at the door, playing against Wanderers is an experience he intends to enjoy.

“I have been waiting years for this opportunity,” he told The Bolton News. “My best bet has been the FA Cup or League Cup but that never materialised. But now they have sunk to my level at League Two!

“It’s a massive shame there will be no fans in there. I could definitely have sold some tickets if they were letting people in on Saturday, put it that way. Friends, family… I could have half-filled the ground myself, I think.”

Joyce grew up watching the swaggering Bolton sides of Bruce Rioch and Colin Todd, and even got pictured in the Bolton Evening News before the final game at Burnden Park.

“I think you put something out on social media a few months ago and my uncle saw the picture and sent it to me,” he said. “They made a programme about the last game and in part of it all you can hear in the background is me blowing that daft horn and walking up and down.”

The Burnden experience is one Joyce still remembers fondly.

“Me and my dad had season tickets – it was basically our life,” he said. “That was where the football dream started, going and watching Nathan Blake and Jason McAteer, I loved it.

“Every Christmas was a new Bolton kit and if Bolton were away on Boxing Day we’d get tickets for Christmas as well, so I’ve been to some exotic places, like Grimsby.

“But every home game we’d park up on Lever Street and walk across the metal bridge, walk down Manchester Road and try to watch the players go in, then through the turnstiles then to soak is all up.

“I remember watching the play-off final at Wembley when we beat Reading. It was the best game I’d ever seen.

“It means the world to me going back there – if selected of course – because Bolton has been such a massive part of my life and my family’s life.”

Former St Mary’s pupil Joyce played junior football for Hindsford and was picked up by Bolton at the age of 10, training on the old Astro turf pitches behind the stadium with the Centre of Excellence.

Sadly, his time with the club came to an end 12 months later.

“It was just as they were switching up to the Reebok,” he recalled. “The coaches called me in for a meeting and told me I was being released. I remember getting outside and just being in tears. That was the dream over.

“I still went watching games but I was heartbroken. In hindsight it was probably the best thing for me, though, because I didn’t really thrive in that environment. I wasn’t the most confident lad, so we went back winning the Manchester and Salford leagues with Hindsford.”

Joyce got invited back on trial at the Reebok couple of years later – a match that would also include future Bury and Northampton Town winger Nicky Adams – but after Bolton passed on offering him another deal he continued to play for the inter-league team, organised by Bob Norris, and the Wigan town team, which led him to an offer from the Latics.

“David Lee was the youth team coach, which was surreal,” he said. “I’d been watching him play for Bolton loads but he was the one who started it all off for me.

“I’d still be watching Bolton on a Saturday and then playing at Wigan on the Sunday.

“That carried on for a while. I remember going to see Bolton beat Liverpool at Anfield when Mario Jardel scored. Jay-Jay scored a free-kick and Youri got a penalty right in front of the away end.

“Once you get in the youth team you have to train on Saturdays and then watch the Wigan first team in the afternoon, so as time goes on and you are playing for different clubs it isn’t quite the same. I have never lost the interest, though, I still look for Bolton’s result first.”

The result will be of primary importance for Vale, where Joyce has played his football since the summer of 2018.

After some difficult years, the Potteries club appears to be back on the up under new ownership and the management of John Askey, making an excellent start to the season.

A five-game losing streak in November, however, has put a dampener on some excellent early results and Joyce believes Vale come to the UniBol with a point to prove.

“We have been then opposite to Bolton, really,” he said. “The first season I was there we only just survived and there was a lot of trouble off the pitch with the owner. It wasn’t a nice place to be.

“The new guys came in and completely flipped it on its head. They can’t do enough and there’s a great feel about the place now.

“Last season reflected it. We were a point outside the play-offs when the season ended and had an FA Cup game at Manchester City. It carried on into this season and we looked good. But we have hit a little patch now.

“The lads have jokingly blamed me for it because we were 2-0 up against Tranmere and I got sent off. We ended up losing 4-3 and we have not won since.

“I’m hoping – and a lot of my friends are not – but that it turns on Saturday.

“I have to do what’s best for Port Vale and my career, and that’s to go and get three points at Bolton. That’ll be the aim on the day.”

Expectation levels at Wanderers have been a topic of much debate in the last few months. Billed as promotion favourites by the bookmakers, Evatt’s side have until recently struggled with the mantle.

Joyce has a unique perspective – and believes that teams, including his own, will find an extra level when coming to the University of Bolton Stadium.

“You expect Bolton to be up there because they are Bolton Wanderers and where they have been recently,” he said. “If you look at the squad, there’s a mixed bag. Eoin Doyle and Antoni Sarcevic have done well in League Two, Matt Gilks and Alex Baptiste have got loads of experience, Nathan Delfouneso has played at a much higher level, and then there are players who Ian Evatt has obviously seen at non-league level who he thinks can adapt to this level and play the football he wants.

“I know from people close to me that there were a lot of questions asked earlier in the season but it has taken time for players to come together and now they have hit a purple patch and are doing really well.

“Bolton have that problem where everyone wants to beat them because they are a scalp. A bit like Salford, with the money they have spent, teams tend to raise their game.

“The Reebok [sic] is a great place to play. You should be able to get motivated there.

“Whenever I have had the opportunity playing at the bigger stadia it gives you a boost.

“I’ve spent pretty much all my career in League Two but every so often you’ll get a Portsmouth, or a Bolton. Sometimes you get a cup draw and I’ve played at City and Liverpool. It gives you an extra couple of percentage.

“We’ll definitely enjoy playing at Bolton and every single player will want to win that game.”

Around 18 months ago the midfielder also launched the Luke Joyce Pro Football Academy, which offers supplementary coaching for local players already in the system with junior league clubs.

“I started it about 18 months ago – I’m 33 now and I can’t expect to play forever,” he said.

“We are based at Westhoughton Leisure Centre on the 3G facility on Thursday evenings and at the time we started with one age group, at the time Under-12s.

“It’s supplemental coaching for junior players so we have ones from Ladybridge, Moss Bank, Daisy Hill, Hindley Juniors, Hindsford, Astley Bridge, Aspull, all local players who just want extra coaching.

“Myself, Andy McDonnell and John O’Sullivan – who plays for Morecambe – do the sessions for all abilities, anyone is welcome. But for the higher ability ones we try and organised games against the professional academies – Accy, Fleetwood, Oldham, Fylde, just to give a bit of experience.

“We have currently got two lads in the system at Bolton and we’re trying to get a connection linked up with them as I’d imagine they are trying to get youngsters through more than ever right now.

“We have started an Under-11s too, so it is going really well with about 70 players across the two age groups.

“I love it and I’d like to think they can come in and learn. It also helps people who have had setbacks and disappointments like I had in my career.

“I’m building it slowly while I’m still relevant to the kids – while they can still play as Luke Joyce on FIFA – and hopefully we can add more, depending on what happens with my career.”