How Bolton capitalise on loans
Written by Simon Austin — August 9, 2023
WHEN Bolton took on Curzon Ashton in pre-season, James Trafford was sitting at the back of the main stand at the Tameside Stadium cheering on his former team-mates.
Even though his season-long loan with the Trotters had ended, his affinity with the side hadn't.
“He just loves Bolton,” manager Ian Evatt told the TGG Podcast, which you can listen to below. “It just speaks volumes for our culture and environment that he wants to come back and spend time with us all. It’s a two-way street - he was brilliant for us, but people must also remember we were brilliant for him."
Just three days earlier, Trafford had saved a stoppage-time penalty in the final of the European Under-21 Championship to claim the title for England for the first time since 1984. And two weeks later, the 20-year-old keeper had moved from parent club Manchester City to Burnley for an initial fee of £15 million.
Trafford's two loan spells at Bolton, spanning a total of one-and-a-half seasons, were a huge success. He set records for clean sheets - four in his first four games and 26 in total in the 2022/23 season - and played a major role in propelling the club to the play-offs, where they were beaten by Barnsley.
So it seems difficult to believe there were grumbles when he first joined.
“He had just been out to Accrington for his first loan and things didn’t go well for him there and he wasn’t in the team,” remembered Bolton Sporting Director Chris Markham.
“The day we signed him the reaction from some sections of the fanbase was not positive let’s say.”
Fortunately, Markham had been able to do some detailed due diligence on the player, thanks largely to his contacts at The Football Association, where he had been Game Insights Lead for four years before joining Bolton in February 2021.
“It’s about research and networking,” Markham told the TGG Podcast. “I was lucky - I had worked at the FA and knew people like (Head of Goalkeeping) Tim Dittmer, who is a huge help to me and to us.
“I could say, ‘Right, what is his mentality like, his resilience?’ It had to be so high to come from Accrington and play in front of 20,000 on his debut (against Ipswich in January 2022). We had some assurances he was very very good technically, a great person and had that resilience.”
Trafford wasn’t Bolton’s only loan success last season. Full-back Conor Bradley joined from Liverpool at the start of the campaign and went on to become Player of the Year, Player’s Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year (shared with Trafford).
And the club hope to have similar success with loan signings Paris Maghoma, the Brentford midfielder, and West Brom defender Zac Ashworth in 2023/24.
“Loans are really important,” admitted Markham. “If we had the opportunity to own an asset versus loan one and develop someone else’s, we would always want to develop our own, because we don’t want to be a feeder for the bigger clubs.”
However, loans can mean getting quality you couldn’t otherwise sign. This was certainly the case with Bradley, 20, who is already a full Northern Ireland international.
“Conor was one that if we could do it we would, because it would be very difficult to own someone who could do those things for us,” admitted Markham.
MAKING LOANS WORK FOR ALL PARTIES
Bolton has become an attractive destination for top Category One Academy talent, for a variety of reasons. Number one is location, with the likes of Everton, Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United on the doorstep.
“We are in a really good location to tap into some of the heavyweights in the Premier League and have done that and created good relationships,” Markham said.
Number two is style of play, with Evatt's side having become renowned for their high-possession, high-intensity approach.
Markham explained: “One of the benefits of Ian’s playing style is that it is similar to the ones at the top of the game. So we can say to a Manchester United, Liverpool Manchester City player, ‘If you come here you are going to have very similar experiences on the field - there is a huge pressure to win, we are going to dominate the ball quite a lot.’”
Evatt added: “Most people will take the easy route and say, ‘We want him to go and play in the Championship.’ But what happens if it’s a club that’s just been promoted from League One and is going to be up against it every week and have 35% possession?
“For an attacking player he’s never going to receive the ball in the areas he would for us 30 to 40 times a game, he’s never going to be having the same expectancy to win playing in front of huge crowds.”
Conversely, Category One Academy players can also benefit from the rough and tumble of lower league football, according to Evatt.
“I was a centre-back and it’s the most difficult position to develop for these big Cat 1 teams,” said the 41-year-old, who played in all four divisions. “They never have to defend, they are always dominating the ball, they never have to head the ball, there are no aerial duals, they don’t have to come up against direct pressure.
“They will only find that by going out on loan to the lower leagues, but it’s that snobbery of, ‘I’m not going to play in League Two, I’m a 20 grand a week Man City centre back, why should I have to go through that?’
“Because it’s better for your development, that’s why. People are starting to realise that now.”
There are questions about whether Premier League 2, the U21s competition for Category One Academies, is good preparation for senior men’s football. This is exemplified by a story Markham told on the TGG Podcast.
“We were looking at loan centre-backs at the beginning of last season and there was one we really liked,” he said. “He was very good on the ball, excellent pace, all the things we liked.
“We watched him what must have been over a dozen times in Premier League 2 and managed to get some footage and go through it again and, no joke, didn’t see him have one contested aerial dual.
“We knew one of the first home games of the season was Wycombe and Sam Vokes would have eaten him alive, so we just can’t do it.”
This probably explains why so many recent England goalkeepers and defenders have made their debuts in the lower leagues or even non-league, including Jordan Pickford (Darlington), Nick Pope (Bury Town), John Stones (Barnsley), Harry Maguire (Sheffield United), Kieran Trippier (Barnsley) and Kyle Walker (Northampton Town).
This trend has continued with U21s stars Trafford (Accrington) and Levi Colwill (Huddersfield Town). When done in the right way, loans can undoubtedly be positive for all parties. This is illustrated perfectly by the example of Trafford at Bolton.
“I messaged James immediately after the (U21) final just saying I was really proud of him," Evatt revealed. "He’s so humble that he said, ‘I’m so proud of you for what you did for me’ and how we developed him as a person and player.”