SINCE the turn of the millennium, only s small band of players have managed to score more than a dozen goals for Wanderers in a single season.

Michael Ricketts did it twice, firing 24 and 15 as he fired Sam Allardyce’s side into the Premier League. Dean Holdsworth also managed 14 in the promotion year.

Despite the galaxy of stars that followed we had to wait nearly two decades for that to happen again – Eoin Doyle notching up 19 goals as he helped Ian Evatt’s side out of League Two last season.

This season, Bolton fans have been spoilt. Amadou Bakayoko scored 13 but – unlucky for him – Dapo Afolayan managed one more, capping off a year where his trajectory has gone off the chart.

It is a little more than a year since the talented forward arrived from West Ham on loan, his reputation as more of a tricky playmaker than a goal-getter. And though he quickly made himself an important part of Evatt’s side it was only in League One that Afolayan’s talents really started to shine.

Replicating the scoring streaks he had at non-league Solihull Moors as a teenager, he quickly enhanced his standing to become one of the division’s must-see stars.

Last week he joined another illustrious group, becoming Bolton’s player of the year.

Past winners of the title include Jay Jay Okocha, Kevin Davies, Jussi Jaaskelainen and Bruno N’Gotty – exalted company indeed – and Afolayan admits it has been a year of real self-advancement.

“I think the area I have improved most is my know how, and what I mean by that is I always knew I had ability and could do things but being able to go and actually perform, being cleverer on the pitch, dribbling at the right times, being confident to run at people and know I can beat them and not doubting it. I think that is what has changed,” he said.

“A lot of the time when I lose the ball it is because I am doubting myself a bit.

“I do think about my game. I know there is improvement there and stuff that I can come back and be better at next season. I will go away and work on those things.

“I keep seeing stats about previous players here – me, Doyler and Michael Ricketts – just to be in that bracket is brilliant and something to be proud of on its own.”

Afolayan has demanded extra attention this season with 20 goal involvements (i.e. goals and direct assists) and more successful dribbles than anyone else in League One.

But that has come at a cost – and he has also been fouled more than anyone else in the league with the exception of MK Dons’ Scott Twine.

“It is something I have learned to deal with over the years,” he said.

“For me, it is always going to be something that happens because of the way I play.

“I think referees need to cotton on to it rather than letting players have six or seven free hits before something happens, but I think I have done well to stay injury free from some of the tackles I have had this year, hopefully that continues in the future.”

Afolayan’s first Bolton goal came on the final day of the 2020/21 season at Crawley as Evatt’s side turned on a masterclass to seal their automatic promotion. Unfortunately, Covid restrictions meant there were no fans around to watch it in the flesh.

This season has been quite the opposite and with record crowds for a third-tier season at the UniBol coupled with the traditionally strong away followings, Afolayan has seen first hand what a difference the Wanderers fans can make.

“I think what they have managed to do this year, especially away from home, has been remarkable,” he said.

“They were away from the game for so long and there was everything the club went through before that.

“I think they are just happy to have their club back, really, and that is one thing we have tried to do is give them that pride in their football club again. They deserve it.”

Finishing ninth was respectable in Bolton’s first season back at this level but Afolayan accepts the expectation levels will increase this summer.

“This club speaks for itself, it should always be going for promotion,” he said. “But it won’t be easy, it will be just as hard if not harder than this year with a lot of big clubs in here.

“A lot of the teams have the same ambition and only three of us can go up.

“That will be the goal for us as a squad, 100 per cent. I have seen a lot of interviews with the lads and every one of them talks about getting into the Championship, so we have to start now, focus over the summer and get ourselves ready.”