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Bolton Nuts » BWFC » Bolton Wanderers Banter » Examining Bolton Wanderers' non-league signings through history

Examining Bolton Wanderers' non-league signings through history

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse
It is five-and-a-half years since Wanderers last explored the road less travelled, reaching into the non-league for the raw striking talents of Kaiyne Woolery from Tamworth.

The young forward had a set of exciting attributes – pace, energy and a willingness to learn – but the man who signed him, Dougie Freedman, nor his successors Neil Lennon and Phil Parkinson, struggled to look past his relative inexperience in the professional game.

Six starts in three years, coupled with a short spell on loan at Notts County, left Woolery a peripheral figure, unable to grab the game time his development so desperately required.

He was sold on to Wigan on summer transfer deadline day 2016 for £75,000, before David Flitcroft paid out £350,000 to take him to Swindon Town a year later. He now commands a regular starting spot for the League Two promotion-chasers, reimagined as a winger.

Perhaps Woolery’s Bolton experience is a cautionary tale for the two young players fished from the non-league pond this week by Keith Hill.

Muhammadu Faal, formerly of Enfield, and George Thomason, of Longridge Town, became the first two permanent signings of the winter window, arguably creating more of a buzz among the Bolton supporters than the week’s third loan arrival, Manchester United’s Ethan Hamilton.

Opinion was divided among those who applauded Hill’s ‘outside of the box’ thinking and others who felt such signings reflected a slight lack of ambition.

But a glance through the history books shows that Bolton have discovered plenty of talent outside the Football League before.

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The most famous example is that of Jason McAteer. A young Liverpudlian contemplating a soccer scholarship in Ohio when he agreed to play for Marine’s reserves against Wanderers in 1992.

After impressing the watching Phil Neal and his assistant Steve Carroll, Marine were persuaded to part company with McAteer – and this part of the story is somewhat apocryphal – for £500 and a new team kit.

What is not in question is that McAteer went on to big things, playing in a World Cup for the republic of Ireland and signing for Liverpool to make Wanderers a £4.5million profit three years later.

It has become a football cliché for clubs to go searching for the ‘Next Jamie Vardy’ but in Bolton’s case, the ‘Next Jason McAteer’ would do very nicely.

There was a time when recruiting players from part-time clubs, or even workplace teams was considered fairly commonplace.

Way before the academy systems or centres of excellence, young footballers earned their spurs playing for the town teams and waiting to catch a scout’s eye. For some, the wait extended beyond school age.

Malcolm Barrass, for example, was a month away from his 20th birthday when Bolton brought him in for a three-game trial after spotting him playing for the Ford car manufacturing team in Manchester. He went on to make more than 350 appearances for Bolton and won three caps for England.

Before him, other famous names had been picked up from what we would now consider obscure corners of the non-league pyramid. Ted Vizard, the prolific Welsh outside-left, had been playing for Barry Town until an old schoolfriend recommended him to Bolton. He played 512 times for Bolton over 18 seasons, and scored 70 goals, lifting the FA Cup twice in 1923 and 1926.

Another member of the wonderful side of the twenties, the “Topsham Fisherman” Dick Pym, was earning his living from the sea whilst playing for Southern League Exeter City. It was only when war intervened that he came to Wanderers’ attention and became the most expensive goalkeeper in British football when he transferred for a reported £5,000. Three successful Wembley finals and three clean sheets later, he is still talked about in debates over the greatest keeper in Bolton’s history.

John Higgins, a member of Bolton’s 1958 FA Cup winning side, was a baker playing for Buxton when Bolton came calling.

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Stan Hanson, another player to represent Bolton on more than 400 occasions, played for non-league Litherland before signing professionally at Burnden Park. He kept goal in the 1953 FA Cup final and could well have rivalled Eddie Hopkinson’s all-time appearance record had it not been for serving in the war.

Even Roy Hartle, surely one of the finest defenders to wear a Bolton shirt, turned out for his local team Bromsgrove Rovers before signing amateur forms at the age of 16 for the Whites.

Paul Jones signed professionally with Bolton in 1969 but not before he “had my shins kicked black and blue” as a kid playing for Ellesmere Port and oil company, Shell. Another member of the 500-appearance club, he, like Hartle, would get into many supporters’ all-time Wanderers XI.

Perhaps Bolton’s finest collector of non-league talents was John McGovern.

A former League and European Cup winner with Derby and Nottingham Forest, he was handed a player-manager role in 1982 but quickly found the club’s financial issues were deteriorating fast.

The lack of cash forced him to hunt for bargains in the semi-professional game, something he managed quite well, despite tough times at Burnden.

Warren Joyce had offers to play professional rugby league but after being kept out of the game for a year with a broken neck, he still managed to turn out for local non-league side Burtonwood.

In 1983 he was offered the chance to trial at Bolton, and with his father Walter in the first team coaching staff it wasn’t long before he made the step up.

George Oghani had the chance to sign for Bury but stayed on the dole, playing for Hyde United for another couple of years, until McGovern paid £3,000 for his services in October 1983.

Like Woolery, he struggled to bridge the gap in the professional game at first, and it was not until the arrival of a certain Tony Caldwell that his fortunes perked up.

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Caldwell had been an electrician carving out a decent reputation as a non-league striker with Irlam and Horwich RMI when McGovern paid £2,000 to bring him to Burnden Park.

Just four games into his Bolton career, Caldwell hit five goals in a single game against Walsall, becoming the first player to do so for the Whites since James Cassidy in 1890.

It proved a career-defining moment for the Salfordian, who shared 38 goals with Oghani in the 1984/85 season, topping the scoring charts for another four years before a move to Bristol City.

Another of McGovern’s non-league spots was Mark Winstanley, who had been playing for his hometown club Newton-le-Willows and who, like Joyce, turned down the overtures of the oval ball to play for Bolton, making his debut in 1986 and going on to anchor the club’s revival in the early nineties.

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Mark Came’s introduction to full-time football with Wanderers was not without its problems.

Signed from Winsford United in March 1984, the defender had trained for seven months to get up to speed before being handed a debut in a Milk Cup tie at Notts County.

At 6-0 down and looking way off the pace, you might not have bet your shirt on Came going on to make the centre-half spot his own. But after the departure of Gerry McElhinney to Plymouth, he went on to captain the club, helping them to promotion from the Fourth Division in 1987/88.

After McAteer and the White Hot era, non-league signings became few and far between for Bolton. Football was changing fast post-Premier League and though the likes of Jeff Smith (Bishop Auckland), Stuart Whitehead (Bromsgrove) and Gary Martindale (Burscough) were picked out by the Whites and had decent careers elsewhere, there have been few who stuck around for long enough to make a difference.

The challenge for Faal and Thomason is to join such illustrious company and show that Hill’s eye for a bargain is a sharp one.

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