TGG Podcast #52: Ian Evatt & Chris Markham - Building Bolton back

Ian Evatt joined Bolton in July 2020

Ian Evatt joined Bolton in July 2020

MANAGER Ian Evatt and Sporting Director Chris Markham are working in tandem to try and restore Bolton Wanderers to former glories.

Evatt arrived at a liquidation-threatened club from Barrow in July 2020 and Markham, who had previously been Game Insights Lead at the Football Association, joined him in February 2021.

Since then they have proved a highly-effective double act, leading the Trotters to promotion to League One in 2020/21 and to the EFL Trophy last season. Their ultimate aim - along with Chairwoman Sharon Brittan - is to lead the club back to the promised land of the Premier League.

Evatt and Markham outlined their approach and experiences in Episode #52 of the TGG Podcast, in association with Hudl. You can listen to the Episode via the Player below and read an edited transcript after that.

1. ARRIVING AT THE CLUB

Chris Markham: If I inherited a blank canvas, I’d hate to think what Ian inherited!


Chris Markham will be speaking at TGG Live in Manchester on October 9th. To find out more and buy tickets, please click the button below.

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Ian Evatt: I had to get the canvas! It was a really rare opportunity to get a football club of this size, that was completely broken and at the bottom of League Two, and make it your own.

Chris: When I first met Ian we didn’t know each other - we were put in contact by a mutual friend. We sat down and agreed how we think the game should be played, what we enjoy and what we want to see.

That was the bit where I thought, ‘This has a chance of being successful.’ To get a blank canvas at a club of this size is once in a lifetime, genuinely. I know we both feel like that. To then be allowed to put on that canvas what we want, in our own way, has been a great opportunity for us.

Ian: You have to do things in stages, you can’t do it all in one go. Fundamentally, the most important part of a football club is results on a Saturday. You can’t do any of the things we wanted to do without winning.

First and foremost it was about getting a team that could function and win football matches. That took time. Then, off the back of that, we were able to build a strategy, a brand and identity, that we want to follow. We are really grateful that Sharon and the Board have put their full trust in us.

It’s very rare for two relatively inexperienced people - not in terms of football, but in our specific roles - to have that trust. We are extremely grateful for that and want to repay them in spades.

Chris: We have been really well backed across all the departments and that is continuing. The initial focus was on players and making sure we were winning on a Saturday and Ian has been phenomenal in delivering that when you look at where we have come from.

There are clubs that will come down into this league and try and do it in one hit. I think it’s a dangerous game and one we have been really conscious that we do want to do things in a different way. We have seen where the club was and we never want it to go back there.

That is through the direction of the owners and Board and the people looking after the club and that should always be at the forefront of our minds, but that doesn’t mean to say we are not ambitious either.

2. STYLE OF PLAY

(Evatt's previous club, Barrow, were nicknamed 'Barrow-celona' because of their attractive possession-based style of play).

Chris: He’s got a mug.

Ian: It says ‘Futbol Club de Barrow’! I think it’s trademarked. When you get comparisons like that it means people are enjoying what you do and that’s why we’re in the game really.

Everyone laughs, because I was a 6ft 4 centre back whose strengths were being physically and aerially dominant. No-one would think I was an in-possession manager. It’s just how you perceive people when you look at them, which is maybe a lesson.

Chris: I was guilty of it. I had worked for clubs that had been up against his clubs and did not expect someone so forward thinking and open-minded. Those two things made me realise quickly this is something I can’t and won’t pass up and want to make it work.

Ian: I'm a self-confessed football snob. I have to be real about that, but that doesn’t mean to say I don’t respect other methods or ways to win. Football is about winning at the end of the day. But if you can win playing this way, for me its the golden chalice, the holy grail.

The best in the game do it this way, so that was the way I wanted to do it - I wanted to attack with the ball and attack without the ball and also now dominate transitions as well.

There is a lot of detail in that and a lot of coaching required. But if you can get it right, then it is sustainable to have success at every level of the English pyramid.

I am hugely influenced by Guardiola. For me, he’s the best, but now (Roberto) De Zerbi has come on the scene and we are taking things from him and trying to apply them to what we do - and (Jurgen) Klopp with his out of possession strategy. That’s what coaching is. No-one has invented the game or re-invented the game.

How you see the game is down to your individual opinion, but coaching is about taking things from different people and implementing them into your own style and ideas. Guardiola was influenced by Cruyff. That’s the game, that’s how it works.

If you like a certain thing, learn off the best and try and create your own ideas off what they’re doing. Pep is a genius, but he doesn’t sit at home and think, 'I’ll reinvent the game.'

He will look at opposition, the same as everyone else does; he will look at other ideas and coaches and think how can that apply to my team. That’s what I do and hopefully it will bring us some success along the way.

What I like to do is split the pitch into five zones, zone one being the outside channel, zone two and zone three being the middle and back. Our pressing strategy is basically trying to force the ball into zone one and keeping it there, because that’s the outside of the pitch and far away from our goal.

That’s the message to the players and a trigger to know that’s what we are trying to do - funnel the ball into zone one and then make sure we keep it there, trying to regain the ball as high as we possibly can.

People will have a similar idea, but the terminology might be different. Everyone talks about modern-day phrases, transition being one, but transition is just second balls. That’s the old way of saying it. The game hasn’t changed, people have been maybe more articulate with how they explain things.

3. RECRUITING TO YOUR GAME MODEL

Ian: I have a clear idea of what I want us to do and how I want us to play and what that looks like as a team and as individuals. What that does do possibly for Chris is give a clear sight of what is required, in terms of what characteristics each player needs. That then makes the pond a little bit smaller for us to recruit in.

Sometimes also that is difficult when you are looking at players playing in a completely different way and system. Then you are basically looking for filkers of how that could translate into what we do.

We do have a specific brand and identity and do our best to recruit to that.

Chris: It is a blessing and a curse.

The blessing is it makes my job so much easier to recruit for, because I know what Ian requires from each of the positions. We speak a lot, not just in the transfer windows, but about out performances and other games of other teams.

We share a lot of football detail and tactical discussion, which makes my job a hell of a lot easier. With our knowledge and filtering, we can quickly remove some players we don’t think fit the profile to play for us, whether that be age-specific, technical, physical. We can get to that point quite quickly and then do more work on the ones that do fit our criteria.

And the curse? I use the centre back example. What are we looking for in the centre back? The have to be quick, because they have to defend one-on-one in half the pitch. They have to be strong and dominant in the air, because it’s League One. And they have to be able to handle the ball. That’s Virgil Van Dijk!

Then trust in Ian and his coaching staff being able to develop. It is very unlikely you will be able to get all those criteria in League, but we know there are certain tools we can work with.

When we first joined and started working together, we had an opportunity to improve the squad through promotion and could easily identify players who were better than the ones we’d lost.

Now that gap is getting smaller. You are looking for the smaller details for where we can improve, which becomes harder and is why we are doing more and more due diligence, so the ones we do invest in are adding to the bits we are missing in the squad.

I think that is something we’ve been really good at.

4. USING DATA

Chris: One of the main things around that is Ian’s open-mindedness to using data across a range of topics and departments. When you hear that somebody uses data, people are quick to assume that means you don’t look at video. That, for me, couldn’t be further from the truth. If you are using data without referring it back to video or watching things with your eyes then you’re doing it wrong. That’s a hill I will definitely die on.

I think it has to be a balanced approach. If we can use data to point back to better things to look at and create better discussion and use that evidence in our decision making then that’s what we want to do.

We are doing things slightly differently here in that we try and collect our own data, so we use certain third-party data but we don’t have any huge contracts with many of the big providers at the moment.

It’s something we want to expand into as we get up the pyramid, but we made a decision when I arrived that we were doing to try and do things differently. With my experience of working that way at the FA, we were able to get a lot of support from the board to really back this way.

So we will collect our data, both scouting and watching games, to try and assess the different metrics Ian needs. But also then we will try and use some objective data, some event level data, that we think is specific to how we work, and we code some more detail.

We are trying to balance it as much as possible, but the perception and some of the things you see online that we are only use data to recruit couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s around how you translate that and ultimately I see part of my job when it comes to data as being the translator.

We have an excellent team of analysts in the recruitment team, we have a data analyst, we use a lot of bespoke metrics, but I come and deliver those numbers in a way ian and the coaches can’t understand or I can’t relay that to the board then its meaningless.

My job is to translate that information and put it into some evidence I can give to Ian to help make the right decision. Data doesn’t start or end the process, it’s throughout the process.

When data comes up, I don’t think it should be a separate department, I think that use of data and evidence-based decision making should be a theme that runs through every department.

There are a lot of clubs that spend a lot of money on data and don’t have any impact with it. It’s almost a sticker to put on the door to think you’re forward-thinking. If we are spending all this time doing it and its not impacting Ian’s decision making then we may as well stop.

5. DEVELOPING PLAYERS

Chris: We aren’t going to buy the finished article, but we want to buy players who might become closer to the finished article.

Ian: My role as a manager is not only to get results on a Saturday but also to coach and develop players. I am very passionate about that. What I find the most rewarding thing is seeing individuals progress and improve their whole game. That really does give me a lot of pleasure.

Chris: People often think, 'Right, he’s in the door now,' whereas we talk about re-recruiting players. How are we inspiring them to come on this journey with us so they want to improve? That’s something Ian and his staff are really good at and that’s getting round now.

6. COMMUNICATION AND LEADERSHIP STYLES

Ian: Young players now have a real problem dealing with adversity, aren’t very resilient. We have to coach them in a completely different way to the more experienced players. As I transitioned through my playing career, I was captain of most clubs I played for and did see that shift in personality between the young and senior players.

How I had to deal with the younger players helped me develop a way of coping with the modern-day players, who do have problems with criticism. The difference between feedback and criticism really is just the way you interpret it. It is making sure the players have an open mind to receiving feedback and not taking it personal.

It is about getting better. The question we always ask is is this way of acting and performing going to help us win on a Saturday? The one thing we have improved the most is the culture and the way we treat players off the pitch.

The owner is absolutely magnificent with that. Sharon is an amazing person and mental health and wellbeing is really topical nowadays. I never had the help and support as a player that our players get now and that is something we take a lot of pride in.

Managing is the same in any business. You have to be a leader and your staff have to want to work for you. You have to identify different characteristics in people and use that to motivate them. People are motivated by different things, whether that’s money, fame trophies. You have to understand that and use it to get the best out of them.

Chris: Ian has talked about how you receive the information, but there is also a lot of thought that goes into how you deliver the information as well. Different people respond to different ways of communication, whether that be for learning or feedback. It is shifting more to video meetings, one to one, being able to send content online, because of the way the world is now.

I’ve got a two-year-old daughter who can use an iPad, it’s mad. We have to be cognisant of how we can deliver information so they can receive it better and that will be different for everyone. You have to treat everyone fairly, but don’t treat everyone the same, they aren’t the same thing.

Ian: Players I’ve found now want as much information and detail as possible. I’ve listened to loads of your stuff and it’s really fascinating and players listen to this stuff as well. They are keen to challenge you as a manager and I embrace that. It’s really good we are pushing each other and striving to be better every day and that is a two way street. That is something I am extremely passionate about.

The days of putting people up against a wall or throwing teacups, it just doesn’t have any impact on young players nowadays. They want detail, they want to know they are being improved and coached.

Chris: They have access to more information now, so they are in a position to challenge more. On resilience, you have to have a thick skin now because of social media. Back then, you weren’t really in a position where you could be sat at home and people were feeding tweets right into you. That can have a severe impact on mental health.

Ian: As a player and manager, you have to accept that you’re not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. I found a quote the other day from Kirk Cousins, NFL quarterback - 'If my critics saw me walk on water, they'd say I can’t swim.'

We have to accept that, be really clear and positive with what we are trying to do and, most important, believe in it. Because if I don’t believe in what we are trying to do and how we play, then how the hell am I going to get any players to believe in it?

Come rain or shine, whether we are winning or losing, we stick to our process and beliefs and judge ourselves on them.

Chris: It’s not to say every young player is like that, but resilience does seem to be less and that’s something we’re mindful of. We’ve tried to do things a bit of a different way with our B team and play them against more senior players and then you’re talking about resilience not only off the field but on it as well.

Ian: One of my biggest assets as a coach is I have modern-day methods but I carry the old school values. It’s about how you combine the two to get the most out of the modern-day player.

7. EVOLUTION OF COACHING AND MANAGEMENT

Ian: I loved being a football player but I’m much better at this. I played in every division, scored in every division, was promoted out of every division, so I had a pretty good career, but I do enjoy this a lot more. I find it a lot more rewarding and think I’m better at it, so long may that continue.

Over the course of my playing career you pick up things you like and don’t like. The game has progressed so much. I was playing in the Premier League 13 years ago for a team that didn’t once do a session with any out of possession strategy. We didn’t know who to press, when to press, what the triggers were.

We didn’t have any meetings about opposition, no oppo analysis. We were Blackpool going to Man United away, just backing what we do with the ball and not really having an out-of-possession plan which, nowadays, I find baffling.

What I will say about modern-day coaching is everybody has a plan and they coach to that plan. I think the game has improved ten-fold.

Chris: It probably started in the top half of the Premier League and each year it probably goes down a few places and now we’re right down to non league. In the past maybe, if you did good opposition detail you’d have a big advantage maybe. Now we have to be aware that they are watching us the same as we are watching them.

Ian: The key words are hard and smart. There’s no good working 15, 16, 17 hours a day if you’re not working smarter than everybody else. It’s how you use that time to improve.

It’s people skills, it’s understanding their characters. There has to be a clear difference between business and pleasure. Off the pitch I am a nice guy, my door is always open and I’ll help the players in all aspects of their lives.

I’m part of that group and their culture. But on the pitch it’s where setting standards and demands come in and they have to understand the difference between what business and having a personal relationship off the pitch look like.

I’m trying to improve. I think I’m loads better than I was. Because I went straight from playing into managing, I found it really difficult in not having any direct impact on the games, so I felt that by shouting and arguing with the opposition or referees it gave me some involvement in the game. Now I’m becoming a lot more relaxed and from where I was five years ago it’s chalk and cheese.

Just understanding that looking myself in the mirror and saying my work is done.I know, to the best of my ability, I have prepared the players as well as i can.

I’ve drawn the outline, now it’s up to them to paint the picture. The understanding of that is something I am improving on all the time.

Chris: Once you go over that line you want the players to take over. They’re the ones who have to solve the problem on the field in seconds.

Ian: Half time and full-time to having any impact is, for me, too late. What we’re finding is that the better reputation we are gaining teams will change for us. We can formulate a gameplan based on what they’ve done in the last six, seven games, but they can come here and completely change. It’s the players having the solutions to know if the opposition do this we do that. Ir’s my job as a manager to make sure they understand all of that.

Everybody needs a spark and sometimes the spark doesn’t come from the players. The manager might sense that they need to re-energise and the fans need to be re-energised.

Sometimes that can be the manager and the way they act on the touchline.

8. LOANS

Chris: We had the high-profile loans of Conor Bradley and James Trafford last season who were excellent.

All the players we sign, we try and look for the ones who are hungry and want to get to the Championship. We go for the ones who have a real point to prove and that has served us well.

Loans are really important. 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. We don’t want to be a feeder for the bigger clubs.

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.

One of the benefits of Ian’s playing style is it is similar to the ones at the top of the game, so we can say to a Man 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.' With Traff in particular, it was a really different one compared to a lot of the others.

He had just gone out to Accrington and it was his first loan and things didn’t go well for him and he wasn’t in the team at Accrington. I remember the day we signed him, the reaction from some sections of the fanbase was not positive let’s say.

It’s about research and networking. I was lucky I worked at the FA and know people like Tim Dittmer, who is a huge help to me and us, to say right, what is his mentality like, his resilience, which had to be so high to come from Accrington under that pressure and play in front of 20,000 on his debut.

We had some assurances he was very very good technically, a great person and had that resilience. Conor Bradley was one we knew if we could do it we could, because it would be very difficult to own someone who could do those things for us.

Ian: To see him go on and develop is a great marker for us - he was the first loan player we took on and 18 months later is a household name for the 21s.

Chris: (Goalkeeper) Nathan Baxter has played most of his football in the Championship. He looks at the development we were able to help James with and will back himself to go even further. If we can show we can develop people as well as players then they are hopefully going to want to come and join us and that helps widen our pool of talent.

Ian: 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.

Chris: It might be the exact opposite for a goalie. They probably will want him to go somewhere he’s going to be busy and face loads of shots on target.

Ian: I was a centre-back and it’s the most difficult position for these big Cat 1 teams, especially around the North West, to develop. 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 its 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.

Chris: When I was at the FA, there was a period of time where every one of the back four and goalie had played in league two or brought through not a top club.

We were looking at loan centre backs at the beginning of last season and there was one we really liked. We watched him 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, watched 12 games and 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. He was very good on the ball, excellent pace, all the things we liked.

I understand why there are some of these big loan departments at the bigger clubs because it really really is important.

9. EURO U21 WINNER JAMES TRAFFORD

Ian: He just loves Bolton. That speaks volumes for how we treated him. It’s a two-way street - he was brilliant for us, but people must also remember we were brilliant for him. It just speaks volumes for our culture and environment that he wants to come back and spend time with us all.

Chris: He was saying that if he doesn’t get into one of the international squads - which is ridiculous to even think he won’t - he is going to come to one of the away days and sit in the away end with all the Bolton fans. That sums him up.

Ian: I messaged him immediately after the final just saying I was really proud of him and 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.

10. B TEAM

Ian: Everybody wants to develop their own but that’s a really difficult thing to do, especially being where we are right now. It’s had years of decline and we are having to rebuild the whole thing. We are in the North West and the way the system is at the moment its fundamentally broken.

To be able to develop your own talent from eight to 16, the rules for the big Cat 1 teams to come and take our best right year olds, the compensation is virtually zero, so it’s a really difficult thing to do.

The flip side is we’re in a really good position where we’re situated to get the best 16-year-olds that have been released from Man City, Man United, Liverpool, to come and play for us. They might not be good enough for them at that stage, but they will certainly be good enough for us. Because of our geographical location we can pick up some rough diamonds too.

Chris: Same as the rest of the club, it (the Academy) had gone into decline. It had got to the point where we were down to a Cat 3 club and didn’t have an Under-21s team. We were still getting two, three, four players through our Academy and still do. With some of the improvements we are making, hopefully that number will increase.

Our decision was what environment do we want to create to allow our young players time to develop. That was something we made a conscious decision to go down the route of the B team rather than go into Category Two at the moment. We wanted to try and do things a bit differently, create a different game schedule and programme.

Ian: It gives us the flexibility to play against U21 teams but also get them some real development time against non-league men’s teams. Dion Charles is a great example. Started at Blackpool, was released, went through non league and uses his body tremendously well. He’s learnt that through being on the journey in non-league.

Chris: We had one week last year where we played in the Central League against Accrington on the Wednesday, a non league men’s team on Saturday morning and then we went to Carrington to play a friendly against Manchester United on the following Wednesday, because it was international break, against Sancho and Garnacho for 90 minutes.

We’ve got Conor Carty, a young Irish striker from wolves, who is out in Ireland playing for St Patrick's and has just got in the Irish U21 squad, so we’ve got an U21 international striker on our books through giving him that time to develop.

11. CULTURE OF ANALYSIS

Chris: We are able to pick our games and send them to Wyscout to add on there. It gives us clips and a resource to use with players, but also we now need to think about putting them on that platform, so if we say, ‘You need to look at Nelson Khumbani,’ they are able to go on there and see all his clips.

That wouldn’t be possible otherwise. The culture of analysis we’ve got here is driven by the manager, who watches more footage and does more analysis than anyone else.

Post match with the first team, win lose or draw, there is a post match debrief. In two game weeks that is a lot of time and effort and its not the same at every club. Ian is extremely consistent with that.

That trickles its way down everybody. We have a really good culture of analysis within the coaching staff.

12. THE FUTURE

Chris: We’re in a really good state. We want sustainable success and I think that’s the hardest thing to achieve in any walk of life. We know where this club deserves to be and we will be doing everything we can to get it back there. As Ian says, looking at not just the results but the processes behind it, so that when we do get in the Championship we are in a position to thrive, not just survive.

We are striving every day to get this club promotion. We have a lot of good conversations around making sure this is something that when we do get to the Ch - which we hope is as soon as possible - we will be in a position to thrive there.

Ian: I want to get to the Premier League. I do think I will get to the Premier League. The reason I joined this football club is I didn’t want to be a manager that continually had to move to improve. I wanted to go on a journey together with Sharon, the rest of the board - this football club can take me where I want to go and vice versa.

That’s the aim, that’s the ambition. That’s the dream - to become the first manager to go from League Two to the Premier League with one football club.

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