Picture this. You are an experienced Premier League manager with a talented young English player on your books, yet competition for places is fierce and you feel that they are not quite ready for the pressures of first-team football at a high-profile club where your every move is monitored and critically judged by fans, players and board-members alike. You see potential in the kid but you can’t bring yourself to throw him in at the deep end. What do you do?
The most effective answer, and one that would have made most fans laugh just a few years ago, seems to be… send them to Bolton. As Wenger and Ancelotti can testify.
Last year Arsenal’s Jack Wilshere spent the second half of the season on loan at Bolton, playing 14 times in the league and impressing everyone at the club with his maturity both on and off the pitch. He has since returned to Arsenal and become a focal point of their team, excelling in their two games against Barcelona and establishing himself as a key member of both Arsenal and England’s starting eleven.
This season has seen another potential England star make his way to the Lancashire club for the business end of the season. History appears to be repeating itself. Daniel Sturridge, on loan from Chelsea, is set to make his 10th appearance in a Bolton shirt this weekend and despite the pre-determined brevity of his stay at the Reebok Stadium he is quickly becoming a fans favourite after a string of superb performances has propelled Bolton up the table and into the thick of the battle for Europa League qualification places.
Sturridge has always had the ability, at 15 he was top scorer at the fiercely competitive youth tournament the Nike Cup, but at times the application of his talents or the opportunity to show them has been limited. That said, Manchester City were still livid at the manner in which he left the club to join Chelsea two years ago and his recent performances at Bolton have undeniably justified their reaction, with some sections of the media tipping him for a full England call-up in the not too distant future.
Sturridge made 32 performances for Man City after joining them from Coventry at the tender age of 13 and looked set to have an exciting future at the club yet in the summer of 2009 he allowed his contract to run down before signing for Chelsea much to the disgust of the club that had nurtured and blooded him in the Premier League. A football tribunal eventually decided on a fee of £3.5m that could eventually rise to £6.5m depending on domestic and international appearances. It was clear that both clubs held the young striker in very high regard.
Yet at Chelsea, a club that already boasted the attacking talents of Drogba, Anelka, Kalou?, and more recently Fernando Torres, Sturridge has struggled to make much of an impact and his appearances in the league especially have been limited. In fact it was the arrival of Torres in January that gave Ancelotti, in hindsight perhaps regrettably, the confidence to let Sturridge go out on loan to Owen Coyle’s side. Since January Torres has scored one goal in 740 minutes of play while Sturridge has scored seven in 707 minutes. How Chelsea could have done with that input over the past few months.
Chelsea’s loss has been Bolton’s gain however and for the second successive season Owen Coyle has reaped the benefits of taking a talented young Englishman to Bolton and providing them with a steady run of games in the first team of a Premier League club. First Jack Wilshere, and now Sturridge have performed brilliantly under his tutelage after finding first team opportunities at their parent club limited. It comes as no surprise that Bolton’s worst performance by some distance since his arrival came when Sturridge was cup-tied and they were annihilated by Stoke in the FA Cup semi-final.
Sturridge has blossomed at Bolton; playing alongside the experienced duo of Davies and Elmander he has provided the unpredictable sparks that have often decided games. Goals against Wolves, Arsenal, Newcastle, West Ham and Everton have all helped Bolton pick up crucial points since his arrival at the end of January.
Credit must go to Coyle for transforming Bolton from a route one battering ram to a team that are now as comfortable playing the ball on the floor as they are playing it in the air. The whole philosophy at the club has changed since he took over and it is this change that has made the club attractive to players like Wilshere and Sturridge. To imagine them playing for Bolton 3 or 4 years ago is almost impossible. Everyone is a winner. Coyle strengthens his squad, albeit only briefly, while the players going on loan get the chance to turn their potential into first class performances.
Both Sturridge and Wilshere owe Owen Coyle thanks on a personal level for the way he has shown trust in their abilities and given them the chance to show their talents week in week out but it is not just them that should be thanking Coyle. Bolton is fast becoming an English youngsters finishing school, a place they can go to take their finals, to show they are ready for first-team football in the country’s premier division. Jack Wilshere is now an England regular and it seems it won’t be long before Sturridge is involved at senior level if he continues his recent sparkling form. Every fan of the England national team should be grateful to the work Coyle is doing and the question on many people’s lips is, who will be next to flourish at the Reebok?