The Dougie Freedman revolution is churning away, but is it ready for the challenge of the Premier League?
If there's anything Bolton fans have learned from their first season back in the Championship after 10 years in the promise land, it's that anything can happen here (as is evidenced beautifully by the Championship slider). With that in mind, it's prudent not to count playoffs out until it is mathematically impossible. That said, Bolton's loss to Ipswich at the weekend was certainly a dent in the playoff hopes.
Bolton are currently 8th, 5 points off 6th place Leicester, who boast a far superior goal difference, with 7th place Brighton also on 59 points. Getting the coveted final playoff spot would now mean that Bolton would have to pick their stunning form back up, and hope that Leicester, Brighton, and Middlesbrough (who are separated from Bolton only by their lower goal difference) fail to do the same.
While all Bolton fans would love immediate promotion (especially those of us who can't make it to all of the games), the possibility of staying in the Championship for another season is not the worst thing that could happen.
Relegation revealed that Bolton had an impressive set of problems as a club, most of which could be drawn back to the fact that nobody really knew what direction to take the club since the departure of Sam Allardyce nearly 6 years ago. The squad contained some talented players, but throwing 11 decent players on a pitch does not a team make. It was clear that some system needed to be imposed, and it turned out that Owen Coyle was not the man to do that.
Luckily for the Wanderers, it seems as though Dougie Freedman was. We knew things were going to be different with Freedman as soon as he walked in the door. He was the antithesis of Coyle: quite serious, no mention of table tennis, and more importantly, he had a big emphasis on order. Every step of his training program is planned out, and every minute is working to a larger goal, a plan, which everyone is aware of.
Implementing a system like this, especially after Owen Coyle's table tennis filled days, was always going to take time. The players suddenly had a brand new standard they were trying to achieve, not to mention a higher level of fitness. If Bolton's recent 8 game unbeaten, 5 game winning streak is anything to go by, it is working. But just because the results are coming at the moment, doesn't mean the club is completely transformed. Things are better, but perhaps not yet permanent. The depression and the lack of confidence produced by the past few seasons, subsequent relegation, and another relegation battle looming on the horizon (which has thankfully been avoided), run deep in the players, and it will take more than a string of good results to banish it. Another season in England's second division could be just the training regime Bolton need.
On a more practical note, the biggest downside of staying in the Championship is undoubtedly financial. Bolton reportedly got around £40.5m from television rights in their last season in the Premiership. That figure has been reduced by 95% to just £1.8m in the Championship, a number that shouldn't be surprising to anyone who has suffered through the lack of televised Championship matches. This is partially made up for by the parachute payments from the Premiership, but that £16m a season only goes so far. It's pretty obvious from this that the sooner the club gain promotion, the better.
But the good news is that the parachute payment will still be £16m next season if Bolton remain in the Championship (the payments, of course, cease entirely if the club earns promotion). The season after that, the payments are reduced to £8m, which would really put the pressure on Phil Gartside. Promotion is not something Bolton necessarily need to achieve this season, but next season they probably do.
A return to the Premier League was always the ultimate goal, but the Championship provides a good platform on which to prepare yourself for that challenge. There are more games, which means you need a bigger squad and they all need to be fit and ready to play at any time. There is a greater variety of teams each side is forced to face, which gives the squad valuable experience. The league is unpredictable, any team can beat any other team at any time, there is always something to play for.
In short, the Championship is the perfect training program in itself. What Bolton's recent run of form should signal to Trotters fans is that Dougie's system does work, but not that it's the finished product. 46 more tough, unpredictable, winnable matches could solidify Freedman's infant Bolton into a team that has the stability to achieve in the Premiership for 10 more years. Of course, few teams are ever completely prepared for the rise to the Premier League, but another season in the Championship could help Bolton bridge that gap.