OVER the past 10 years, Wanderers have had to change their policy in the transfer market to reflect a changing economy at the club.

Only a handful of signings in the last five years have involved an upfront transfer fee – with Dion Charles, Aaron Morley and Kyle Dempsey reigniting the trend in January.

Otherwise, Bolton have dealt in the ultra-competitive and unpredictable world of the free transfer, taking advantage of Jean-Marc Bosman’s game-changing rule introduced 27 years ago.

Thousands of footballers now enter the pool of free agents every summer and they have made up the majority of Wanderers’ squad for several years now.

They say the best things in life are free – but which of those out-of-contract stars proved the best bit of business?

We decided to name our ‘best free transfer XI’ based on deals over the last 10 years, which means some of the most famous names – Youri Djorkaeff, Stelios, Jay Jay Okocha and Kevin Davies are excluded, just this once.

Instead, we have concentrated on a time when the Whites did not have the same financial clout as they did in their Premier League pomp.

We do not include loan players in the list, nor academy graduates, only players who have swapped their club for no fee or been picked up as a bona fide free agent.

The lack of transparency in the transfer system can also make it more difficult to assess which signings have actually been free.

It is understood that Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, for example, did not cost a transfer fee when he moved from Millwall to Bolton in January. But officially the move was described as an undisclosed fee.

With that in mind, we have only included players listed as ‘free transfers’ on Transfermrkt.com.

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GOALKEEPER – Not an easy category, as it has proved a problematic position for Bolton in the past decade and Andy Lonergan is excluded from the running.

Remi Matthews was in with a shout having stuck with the club during some tough times and Matt Gilks deserves a big mention for the way he turned around Bolton’s season in 2020/21.

But we are going with Ben Alnwick, who won the 2017/18 player of the year and had been a big part of Phil Parkinson’s promotion side.

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RIGHT-BACK – Though Josh Emmanuel, Pawel Olkowski, Mark Little and Lawrie Wilson all did decent jobs in their relatively brief stays, our choice of best right-back boils down to two players in the current squad.

Alex Baptiste won’t thank us for putting him in this category but we thought he deserved a mention, having played there for Dougie Freedman in his first spell. Of course, he returned under Ian Evatt to provide a steadying influence in the League Two promotion chase.

The winner, however, is Gethin Jones. He too dropped into the middle of defence after Marlon Fossey signed on loan in January but his consistency, tactical awareness and leadership stands him out against the rest.

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CENTRE-HALF – Baptiste gets a nod of recognition here too, as does ex-Nottingham Forest man Jack Hobbs, who battled through injuries to feature regularly under Phil Parkinson.

The cultured Spanish defender Derik Osede very nearly snuck in, too, and would have fit in very nicely with the current Wanderers squad.

Our choice, though, is Mark Beevers, whose partnership alongside David Wheater in the 2016/17 season brought goals aplenty and a miserly number of goals conceded.

He might not rank highly on style points – but ‘Beevs’ would head a brick if it were tossed into the penalty box.

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CENTRE-HALF – Many of the contenders have already been listed but two of the current squad also deserve a mention.

George Johnston has had a good first season in Bolton colours and won the club’s young player of the year award. The former Liverpool and Feyenoord man steadily improved in what was his first full season of professional football and looks like being a very solid signing.

Ricardo Santos gets the nod in our side, however, after becoming the talisman of Ian Evatt’s side in the last two season.

Powerful, rapid, good on the ball – if he could add goals to his game then the sky is the limit.

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LEFT BACK – We have gone with a more traditional left-back role to accommodate some of the other contenders, and first up is Andy Taylor, whose unflashy style helped Wanderers out of League One under Phil Parkinson.

Adam Chicksen shone briefly and brightly for Keith Hill – but once again it is one of the current incumbents who gets the nod. Declan John is happier as a wing-back than he is in a flat back four but towards the end of last season the Welshman was absolutely flying.

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MIDFIELD – We decided to offer some midfield balance by picking one defensive midfielder and two more attack-minded types.

Karl Henry is the man we picked to shore up the middle of the park, something he did to great effect in the Championship. The former Wolves man’s arrival midway through the season gave the 2017/18 side just enough resolve to save them from the drop – which was quite some feat considering what was going on off the pitch.

Players like Jason Lowe, Neil Danns and Ali Crawford just failed to make the cut as did more recent stars like George Thomason, Kieran Lee and MJ Williams.

The 2018/19 player of the year, Gary O’Neil, gets the first spot – with his single season at Bolton proving to be the last of his professional career. A big leader off the pitch, he was even considered as a temporary manager in the early days after Football Ventures took the club out of administration.

Another big character who is well remembered by Bolton fans is Fil Morais, incredibly released by Bradford City just after the winter transfer window in 2017 and snapped up by his former Valley Parade boss Phil Parkinson.

Quickly dubbed ‘The Postman’ because he always delivered, Morais quickly became an indispensable member of the squad in League One and the Championship.

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ATTACK – This was a tough category to judge. Do you go for two goal sniffers and a withdrawn striker, or one target man and two players who can play wide?

In the end we have gone with our instinct, and started with the ‘goal machine’ himself, Gary Madine.

Not a celebrated signing when Neil Lennon brought him in front Sheffield Wednesday, it took some time for him to show his real value. Revelling in the more direct football played under Phil Parkinson, Madine then played the best football of his career to that point earning a £6million move to Cardiff City and eventually playing in the Premier League.

The second man in our triumvirate was another Lennon signing who came back to Bolton in a blaze of publicity in 2014. Eidur Gudjohnsen had made his name at the Reebok under Colin Todd and Sam Allardyce – going on to win pretty much everything there is to win in club football with Chelsea and Barcelona.

He returned at the age of 36 in the hope of getting back into the Iceland squad, and while he wasn’t as quick as he used to be, his all-round game was just a joy to watch.

The last spot was probably the toughest call of the lot. And though honourable mentions must go to Eoin Doyle, Adam Le Fondre, Sami Ameobi and Amadou Bakayoko – who would all make some mouth-watering options on the bench – we have plumped for Dapo Afolayan.

The Star Man has been Wanderers must-watch player for the last 18 months and after rattling in 14 goals this season, it is no wonder he has attracted interest from elsewhere.

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