By Gary Parkinson
Of all the changes happening at Bolton Wanderers, shirt numbering must be low on the list – but nevertheless, the scale of unallocated jersey numbers is unprecedented in the club’s long history. With huge squad churn as the Trotters clear the decks for the club’s second-ever fourth-tier campaign, only Ryan Delaney (6) and Ali Crawford (11) remain among players occupying the squad numbers below 19 last season.
That leaves new manager Ian Evatt – settling in at a new club with an almost entirely new squad and a preferred formation (3-4-1-2) that Bolton have hardly ever played this century – with some decisions to make before announcing his squad numbers this week. Here’s some home-educated guesswork at what might happen in the “Evo-lution”…
Three of the four teams promoted from the basement last season largely featured young goalkeepers, and Evatt will hope the trend continues: Fleetwood loanee Billy Crellin, born two days before David Trezeguet’s golden goal won Euro 2000, has clearly been his first choice in pre-season.
Evatt’s other options are at opposite ends of their careers: 18-year-old Matt Alexander has two senior games under his belt, 38-year-old player-coach Matt Gilks more than 400. As such, Crellin can expect to come in from the 31 he’s worn at Fleetwood (and Chorley) to take the No.1 slot literally as well as figuratively. Alexander (currently No.43) is among half a dozen Bolton academy graduates who may shrink their shirt number, while the incoming Gilks – who has worn 1, 12, 13, 18, 21, 22, 25, 31 and 35 elsewhere – may be more bothered about his first season as a coach.
Evatt has so far signed four players to fight for places in his back three. Left-sided George Taft wore 4 at his last club Cambridge, but 6 at previous club Mansfield and 5 at Burton before that. Fellow newcomer Ricardo Santos has just completed four seasons wearing 5 for Barnet, while the aforementioned Delaney has had 6 since arriving at Bolton a lifetime ago in January 2020.
Delaney’s 6 makes sense for a left-footed centre-back but he is more likely to be played centrally while the attack-minded Taft pushes on, with Santos doing the same on the other side. That could give a back three reading 4-6-5 left to right – pleasingly low, if irksomely out of order.
Among the rivals for those places will be Alex Baptiste; he has worn 15 at Mansfield, Blackpool, Bolton, Blackburn, Middlesbrough, QPR and Doncaster, and at the age of 34 he might not fancy a change now. Reiss Greenidge, the left-footer who came up through Arsenal and West Brom’s academies but has recently been playing in Norway, would suit the 16 he wore for Sogndal in 2016/17 and 2017/18; homegrown centre-backs Harry Brockbank (21), Liam Edwards (26) and Adam Senior (43) could reduce their numbers in a squad limited by EFL transfer embargo, the parting gift from that terrible waste of organs Ken Anderson.
With balance as neat as his beard, Evatt has hired two new wing-backs for each side. On the left, Liam Gordon wore 3 for Dagenham & Redbridge for the last two campaigns, and seems to be ahead of the more recently-signed Jamie Mascoll, who wore 15 for Wycombe last season.
On the right, Gethin Jones is the senior option. Although only 24, the Everton graduate (who made one appearance for the Toffees senior team, wearing 50) has worn 20 for Plymouth, 29 for Barnsley, 19 for Fleetwood, 20 for Mansfield and 14 for Carlisle; the Australia-born Welshman might appreciate the stability of the number 2. His young rival Jak Hickman shouldn’t be too picky with his numbers after his Coventry development was ruined by an ill-advised social media post.
Scottish schemer Ali Crawford was technically Evatt’s first Bolton signing, agreeing to sign a new contract after missing most of last season with a knee injury. He’s expected to play as a No.10 but will presumably keep the number 11 he’s worn for Hamilton, Doncaster and Bolton.
Promoted Plymouth’s player of the season Antoni Sarcevic was homesick for his native Manchester and is already established as Bolton captain. He played at 7 for four Plymouth seasons, and spent much of this pre-season wearing that again.
Brandon Comley is the other senior midfield signing. He wore 14 for the last three seasons at Colchester but unless he’s a numerical devotee of Johan Cruyff or Thierry Henry he could be in line for his first low number; 8 would seem to make sense. Evatt has also loaned Blackburn’s Tom White, as he did at Barrow, where the Geordie wore 18.
Again, Evatt’s options are bolstered by existing academy graduates turned professionals. Although Dennis Politic (22) is out for the season, the promising Ronan Darcy (27) can expect game time and perhaps a lower number, while 18-year-olds Sonny Graham (35) and Callum King-Harmes (36) may drop into the 20-somethings even if they are likely to be sent on work-experience loans.
Bolton raised eyebrows by signing last season’s League 2 top scorer Eoin Doyle. The Irishman scored 25 in 28 for Swindon while wearing 28, and he may be forgiven for wanting to keep that lucky number rather than the 9 he wore during a less enjoyable spell at Bradford. Previously he’s worn 13 at Oldham, Preston and Cardiff, and 17 at Pompey and Chesterfield. Even so, the 9 would make perfect sense for this fox in the box.
The final name among the expected first XI is Nathan Delfouneso. The well-liked Brummie wore 14 where possible for his first seven senior seasons, but he halved that to 7 after his summer 2015 switch to Blackburn, where Marcus Olsson owned 14. After subsequent adventures in higher numbers at Swindon and Blackpool, Delfouneso took 7 again for the Seasiders in summer 2018 (when Kyle Vassell left), keeping it for these last two seasons.
The perfect 1-11?
That could mean that Delfouneso will want to keep 7, and there could be a clue in Bolton’s final pre-season friendly, at home to Crewe last Friday. Although Evatt has seemed keen to minimise the publication of match footage – Bolton have only released video of one of the 20 goals they’ve scored in pre-season – sharp-eyed observers said that Bolton played an almost perfect 1-11, complete with names over the numbers; only Baptiste, wearing 27 (which he also donned on loan at Preston four seasons ago), was higher than 11.
Pictures and video on Crewe’s website show that Gordon wore 3, Taft 4, Santos 5 and Delaney 6 (as sub for Baptiste). Delfouneso wore 7, with Sarcevic switching to 10. Assuming right wingback Jones wore 2 and Doyle 9, that would leave midfielder Comley wearing 8.
If these numbers are carried through and veteran Baptiste is ousted by Delaney – not exactly out of the question given Baptiste’s error contributed to the first goal in a 3-0 loss – then it’s entirely possible Evatt will choose a perfect 1-11 for his first game proper, at home to Bradford in Saturday’s League Cup game.
The precise placements could cause quibbles among purists, and as there’s no better place for those purists than SquadNumbers.com let’s have at it. As noted, it’d be neater if the back three read 6-5-4 (left-to-right) rather than 4-6-5. Crawford’s playing at 10 but wearing 11, while many would see the default twin-striker numbers as 9 and 10, so if Crawford goes 10 then the other striker might have to go 8. Then again, that would leave the midfield quartet reading 3-11-7-2, which would blow the minds of a time traveller from the early 1950s – as indeed would a midfield quartet, a 3-4-1-2 system, the internet, the Kardashians and the idea of a footballer earning £80m a year.
Personally, I quite like that this numbering system would have the midfielders (sans wingbacks) and forwards wearing 7-11 while the back five (ish) wear 2 through 6. As a child of the 80s there’s also something exciting about a forward partnership wearing 9 and 7, even if Doyler and the Fonz don’t quite reach the heights of Rush and Dalglish.
Maybe they will, though, in their own way. Football fandom is predicated on the triumph of hope over experience and pre-season is always the time to dream, even this ludicrously foreshortened close-season in this horrifyingly affected year. And Bolton fans might be excused a daydream more than most. After all, this is a fanbase that has sat through four relegations in nine seasons including, within the last half-decade, three of the club’s worst-ever 10 campaigns in terms of PPG.
Over that last five seasons, Bolton have played 218 league games and lost almost exactly half of them (107), winning less than a quarter (53, of which 25 were in one season), celebrating less than a goal per game (204, of which a third were in one season) and conceding more than 1.5 goals per game (335) – not to mention almost going out of business and having a 12-point penalty levied upon a club on its knees. After all that punishment, numerical and literal, it’s nice to spend a moment wondering which players will wear which numbers as they become the latest to represent this proud old club.
PREDICTED SQUAD NUMBERS
(aka hostage-to-fortune guesswork)
1 Billy Crellin GK
2 Gethin Jones RWB
3 Liam Gordon LWB
4 George Taft LCB
5 Ricardo Santos RCB
6 Ryan Delaney CB
7 Nathan Delfouneso CF
8 Brandon Comley CM
9 Eoin Doyle CF
10 Antoni Sarcevic CM
11 Ali Crawford ACM
12 Jak Hickman RWB
13 Jamie Mascoll LWB
14 Ronan Darcy CM
15 Alex Baptiste CB
16 Reiss Greenidge LCB
17 Callum King-Harmes ACM
18 Tom White CM
19 Mo Faal CF
20 Matt Alexander GK
21 Harry Brockbank CB
22 Dennis Politic ACM
23 Matt Gilks GK
24 Adam Senior CB
25 Sonny Graham CM
26 Liam Edwards CB