FIVE years ago Wanderers’ academy was applauded as the fourth ‘most productive’ in the land, having produced the likes of Rob Holding, Josh Vela, Zach Clough and more who broke through from the junior ranks and into regular senior football.

At the helm of the talent factory, Jimmy Phillips, who had himself come through the school of excellence at Burnden Park in his playing days, boasting proudly that the club’s conveyor belt had started churning out talent once again after a much publicised and debated barren spell.

While the Premier League’s rankings took some figuring out – an audit in March 2017 deducing that they had done more than Liverpool, Everton and Arsenal to take a ‘Champions League’ position among 92 clubs – the rank was rightly worn like a badge of honour at Lostock.

Twelve months later, Bolton were deemed to be top of all EFL clubs in a similar rankings system as Vela, Clough and Co became indispensable parts of Phil Parkinson’s promotion winning side in League One.

David Lee’s Under-23s went on to win the Professional Development League national title, Nicky Spooner’s Under-18s went close to lifting silverware too. And lest we forget that as the club’s financial situation was allowed to turn into mush and its future hang in the balance, it was a team comprised almost entirely of academy graduates who turned out against Coventry City to offer a sliver of hope in some grim times.

Many of the ‘Junior Whites’ batted on for Keith Hill after the takeover to the end of a truncated 2019/20 campaign. Now only one of the starting line-up against Coventry – Ronan Darcy - is still in employment at Bolton Wanderers.

The Bolton News:

This season in League One, players who represented the club at Under-18s level accounted for just 349 minutes or 0.77 per cent of the total game time, the lowest percentage since Dougie Freedman took charge of his first full campaign in 2013/14.

To explain why, it would be easy to point at the ‘football restructure’ implemented by Football Ventures at the midway point of the 2019/20 season.

Led by the head of football operations, Tobias Phoenix, the headline-grabbing call was to dissolve the Under-23s team, downgrade the academy to category three, and attempt to fast-track the Under-18s showing enough talent directly into the senior ranks.

Many felt money was at the heart of the decision. According to Phillips back in 2017, the academy costs had been boiled down to around £400,000 a year as a category two operation, from an eye-watering £1.8million at their pomp. Part of the reduction in costs had been down to increased funding from the Premier League and a sponsorship deal with Digital Bank, the exact value of which was never disclosed in the club’s financial accounts.

The decision to downgrade to category three looked, at least from the outside, to be another cost-cutter, as did the consequent migration of staff, including the long-serving Phillips, Lee and Spooner.

Keith Hill and David Flitcroft had grand plans for the academy, shaped by their own experiences of the local football scene and spells at Rochdale and Bury, but they too left the building by the time football restarted post-pandemic.

An ex-Gigg Lane employee, Mark Litherland, was sworn in as the new head of academy, working with coaches Dave Gardner and Julian Darby but they worked in relative privacy as the Covid regulations made the training ground a no-go zone to the public, and youth football difficult to organise and track.

Some may argue that FV’s decision to put youth football on the backburner was logical, an exercise in priority. The club still had many unwanted and complicated legacies from the previous owners and even though the decision to go to category three was made before the pandemic, the lack of supporters coming through the turnstiles made sure the matter stayed in the background.

Within that unique 2020/21 season Evatt won his personal wrestle for control of the football operation from Phoenix, who was replaced by ex-England and Huddersfield Town performance analyst, Chris Markham.

While it is true that football started to step back towards normality the following summer, with fans reintroduced and cashflow finally restored, it is also fair to say that Evatt and Markham spotted a big mistake had been made.

Younger players like Darcy, Adam Senior, George Thomason, Liam Gordon, Luke Hutchinson and the like were caught in the Twilight Zone between youth and senior football, which potentially harmed their development as players.

Reserve team football was reintroduced last summer, with mixed results. A shallow squad was stretched too thinly, leaving Under-18s filling gaps and huge inconsistency in the quality of games, often played on alarmingly poor pitches.

As a result, there has never been a time when a homegrown player stood a realistic chance of breaking through to become a first team regular.

The Bolton News:

Harry Brockbank (above) filled gaps in the back four until a run of poor form and injury left him out of the picture. His long association with Bolton ended in January when he signed for USL Championship side El Paso Locomotive.

Adam Senior was allowed out on loan to Ashton United, York City and Chorley but kept within arm’s reach in case of a defensive emergency. He played twice at the height of Wanderers’ Covid issues in December but has otherwise been on the fringes.

Darcy had to go even further to get the first team football he needed, playing in Norway for Sogndal and Scotland for Queen’s Park. Although the latter loan ended in promotion, the game time he received in both cases was hardly plentiful and, like Senior, he returns to Bolton with his pathway appearing quite obscured.

A handful of other younger players were used in the cup competitions – Mitch Henry, Matt Tweedley, Arran Pettifer – but the main hope for the current crop lies with two players who did not play a single minute of senior football this season.

Finlay Lockett has recent made a return from serious knee injury and picked up encouragingly on the scoring form he had shown before.

The young striker has already had a brief taste of football in League One and Two and is rated highly but like many attacking players his age, it is hoped he can work on the physical side of his game to make the next step.

Full-back Max Conway may be even closer to Evatt’s plans, having trained with the first team and travelled with the squad at the end of last season. With Liam Gordon released and some doubt as to Jack Iredale’s best position, he could be the only other recognised wing-back in the squad at present.

Wanderers have now confirmed plans to introduce a B Team – a move which has effectively come a full circle to where we were at the start of that controversial ‘football restructure’ a couple of years ago.

The difference being that the established coaching set-up which was in place back then has now been disbanded. On Tuesday, the departure of academy boss Mark Litherland (pictured below) was also confirmed, leaving even more gaps to be filled, and even more emphasis on the club’s next round of recruitment.

The Bolton News:

Along with a new academy manager, Wanderers are understood to want a head of coaching to oversee standards across the junior ranks.

The B Team will also have its own specific manager who will liaise with Evatt and his first team staff, and midfielder Andy Tutte has been offered a player-coach role in the new set-up to give him a leg-up into post-football career.

Who will comprise the new squad is another unknown. A small number of scholars from previous years remain but an announcement has yet to be made on the next intake, assuming there will be one.

Exit trials have been held – and will continue to be held through the summer – to mop up lost talents from other clubs up and down the land. But while those waifs and strays may provide the short-term answer, the biggest challenge facing Wanderers is to start the conveyor belt going once more with their own-produced players.

Evatt’s two seasons in charge have placed all the focus on first team football but for Wanderers to have the successful future he plans, the next few months could be crucial on the green fields of the Eddie Davies Academy.