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Bolton secure strong spine to title-winning development squad

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AFTER last season’s surprise success at Under-23s level, Wanderers are laying down some firm foundations to try and keep the good times going.
Last summer just six players were contracted at development squad level, and a steady procession of trialists – which would eventually top 100 in number – began to march through the Lostock gates.
Yet from the chaos David Lee fashioned an exciting side which found consistency post-Christmas and went on to capture the national title for only the third time in the club’s history.

Reward for those young players has come in the form of professional contracts, and Lee starts this summer with Harry Brockbank, Liam Edwards, Dennis Politic, Joe Muscatt, Chiori Johnson, Stephen Duke-McKenna, Joe Pritchard and Jack Earing all stable and secured.
Another player, Connor Hall, points the way to the next step. His 22 goals last season were enough to push him to the fringes of the first team, and a new two-year deal issued this week suggests both Lee and Phil Parkinson give him a shot of progressing even further.
Reserve team football, as the tradionalists still call it, has felt like an afterthought at times in the last decade at Wanderers.
The refuge of the midweek obsessive, games at the County Ground, Leyland, received little attention, even from the club itself. Academy staff and players famously felt ostracised in the Dougie Freedman years, even as talents like Josh Vela, Rob Holding and Zach Clough began to make themselves known.
Things changed for the better in Neil Lennon’s tenure, and improved again when Parkinson’s arrival coincided with the first team moving to Lostock.

In the last 12 months the connect has been strengthened to the point where second string football almost seems fashionable again.
A recent suggestion by Lee Anderson, son of chairman, Ken, that games be broadcast live on social media was met with a positive reaction. A generation of fans who you’d be unlikely to bump into at Lancashire FA on a Tuesday night are taking note.

That added exposure may also pose a challenge for Lee, his assistant Tony Kelly and Under-18s coach Nicky Spooner, as time goes on.
Keeping players’ feet on the ground and the focus on development is not always easy, particularly in the age of Twitter, and fans’ calls for younger players to be fast-tracked to the senior squad are often made without empirical evidence.
A cautionary tale may exist in a development squad almost wiped out after relegation from the Championship in 2016.
Many of those released have since gone on to carve out good careers elsewhere. Goalkeeper Harry Campbell is on the books of Burton Albion, Chris Cvetko is playing in Austria, George Newell is in Scotland with Motherwell and Nathaniel Phillips – son of Jimmy – was last seen in the Liverpool travelling party for the Champions League final.
But of all that talented group, passed on from Ian Brunskill to David Lee two years ago, the players most often tipped to make the grade were strikers, Jamie Thomas and Alex Samizadeh.

Both had enviable goal-scoring records at youth level, and the clamour from fans to see them rushed down the same path as Zach Clough had trod 18 months earlier was intense.
Inside the Wanderers camp, however, there was a feeling neither were ready for regular senior football and needed more work on their overall game.
Thomas, a Wales Under-19 international, twice made the bench but never got his senior bow. And when he moved across Lancashire to Burnley on his release, the reaction from supporters was severe.

The same happened again a year later with Samizadeh. The Iran-born striker actually did get a brief taste of senior football as a substitute at Brentford on April 5, 2016, and also had a short spell on loan with Chorley. His goals had stacked up but the lack of first team incentive led him to turn down a year extension in favour of a deal at Kilmarnock in Scotland.
This summer both Thomas and Samizadeh were released and are now looking for new clubs. Neither started a senior game at their new club.
Had Wanderers' financial problems not been so acute, one wonders if Thomas or Samizadeh could have been nurtured into the talents they promised to be - but then that same question can be asked of so many young players playing in the waiting room of development squad football.
We may yet see another stream of trialists permeate the Under-23s' line-ups in the coming months, for that is the way of things at Wanderers. There is a certain charm to the uncertainty of watching homespun youngsters thrown in alongside a La Liga winner like Julio Baptista or an old warrior like Joey O'Brien.
Securing a strong spine for Lee to depend on this season will be important, not only for results - which do take a backseat at this level - but in trying to push these players on towards their ultimate goal.

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