My ball! - Charlie Crowhurst
Bolton Wanderers central midfielders are finally returning to form and (more importantly) fitness. This area was a strength on paper but a weakness in practice up until recently, but how much of an effect will the returners have on the club's fortunes for this season?
Keith Andrews is still out injured, and it looks as if his spell on the sidelines will be a long one. The timing is OK though, because reinforcements have arrived. Some players are returning from long injury layoffs. Others are finding fitness after long spells of inactivity. On top of that, some new signings are showing manager Dougie Freedman why they are worthy of inclusion in the first team. In fact, over the last few weeks Wanderers' reserve matches on Friday and Monday nights have been getting almost as much coverage as the first team events on Saturday afternoons.
We are all familiar with Stu Holden's epic quest to return to the first team, which finally looks to be reaching fruition. The American made cameos in two FA Cup matches, and looked good doing it, but it is away from the spotlight, at fitness centers in the US, training sessions at Euxton, in reserve matches and closed door friendlies, that Holden has put in the grueling work necessary to return to his former glory. The finely coiffed American came through 90 minutes unscathed in a Manchester Senior Cup match against his brother's side, which must have been fun for the flatmates, but more importantly for Bolton, showed that Stu is finally ready for a league match. We will know more after Dougie Freedman's Friday press conference, but I believe we are likely to see Stu Holden on the bench Saturday, and that will bring a smile to everyone's face.
There is more good news. Josh Vela has also returned from a long term injury, and the youngster has really impressed in his first few appearances. Fitness concerns prevent him from starting every match, but it won't be long until he is one of the first names on the team sheet. He has appeared in four of our last five matches, starting three of those. His return against Sunderland in a 2-0 FA Cup win was overshadowed by Holden, but Vela actually gave a much more complete performance, as Chris Manning wrote at the time. Vela was even better in the club's next FA Cup match against Everton. Despite the 2-1 loss, Bolton played extremely well, and the young midfielder was at the center of that, earning himself the great honor of being named Lion of Vienna Suite's Man of the Match. Spurred on by the euphoria that such an achievement inspires, Vela won the award again the following week against Watford. I expect to see Vela back in the side this weekend, and for many years to come.
No discussion of Bolton's midfield is complete without mention of Jay Spearing. Through all of the injuries and upheaval, the 23-year-old Liverpool loanee has been a rock in the middle of the park. Only Chris Eagles, Zat Knight, and Kevin Davies have made more appearances this season. Whatever adjustments to formation or tactics Freedman has to make on account of Bolton's newfound depth in midfield, it is unlikely that Spearing will be displaced from the starting XI.
New signing Medo Kamara is also on the verge of being unleashed upon the nPower Championship. He has a reputation as an enforcer with a touch of class, and Bolton will be happy to see both qualities, as they have been lacking for most of the season. Medo has been training with Bolton for close to a month now, and all indications are that Dougie is happy with his progress. He may even join Holden on the bench this Saturday.
Coming into the season, Bolton's midfield was outstanding on paper, and the prime reason most expected the Wanderers to cruise to promotion. One of the reasons they didn't was the poor form of Mark Davies. Mavies, as he is called by some, had a good season in 2011-2012 (Holden's absence gave him the opportunity), grabbing a starting spot and drawing the interest of several big clubs. Davies stayed at the Reebok after relegation, but looked horrible for the first few months of he season. He was finally starting to round into form when a freak shoulder injury sent him to the Trainer's room. The initial estimates were three months out, and that looks fairly accurate, as the 24-year-old has returned to full training and must be anxious to get back into gear before he falls behind the other talents on this list.
Darren Pratley has not been injured, but he will be paying a great deal of attention to the activities in the trainer's room, because he is most likely to suffer from them. Dazza Prazza's time at the Reebok can best be described as uneven, but he seems to have finally found his feet under Dougie Freedman. He has started the last five matches, and while not exactly pulling up trees, there have been some good performances. But good is no longer going to be enough in this group. Pratley is a veteran player, and much like Keith Andrews, was a stopgap solution to Wanderers' midfield problems. And to put it kindly, the gap is starting to close.
In addition to all of that, 21-year-old Slovakian Jan Gregus has put in some dynamite performances with the reserves, and he will be banging on the door for a place in the first team action as well.
To review, that is eight guys (Holden, Vela, Andrews, Davies, Pratley, Spearing, Kamara, Gregus) for two, at the most three spots. The injury issues haven't disappeared completely, but even with that caveat, there are still going to be three or four unhappy midfielders from this group on the bench every time Bolton take the field.
For me, once everyone is fit, Holden, Vela, and Spearing should be the starters for now. Bearing in mind, I have not seen Kamara play yet, and he may force his way into the reckoning, especially when you consider the relative size (or lack thereof) my choices possess.
There is plenty of space in the comments below. Who do you think should be firing up the engine room for Bolton Wanderers?