Date: 8th August 2014 at 1:05pm
Written by:

We speak to Chris from Burnden Aces about tomorrow’s opening match against Bolton

Saturday sees Watford take on Bolton for the 32nd time in the club`s history. In what should be a relatively tough test for the Hornets on the opening day of the season, Bolton will come to Vicarage Road hoping to replicate the kind of form that saw them stave off relegation fears towards the end of last season.

Beppe Sannino`s men are well-prepared, and with what is an almost fully-fit squad it is hard to predict who will even start the game, let alone predict how it`ll finish.

To get a balanced view on what Bolton bring to the table tomorrow, we asked Chris Mann, editor and administrator of the Bolton Wanderers fansite Burnden Aces, a few questions about Bolton`s recent history and how they are likely to fare this season.

Chris spoke to us about continuity of management, getting rid of high-earners, and the wildly varying views and expectations of Bolton fans coming into the season. We also heard about why Hornets loanee Keith Andrews never settled in Lancashire, and what he might add to the Watford squad this year.

What is the current feeling around Bolton? Are fans optimistic or pessimistic? Is there consensus around what’s likely to come of this season?

It’s difficult to gauge a general feeling of current expectations. A quick look through message boards and social media backs that up – with some people having blind faith and already making plans for a trophy parade, while others think we’re in for another season struggling at the foot of the table.

Most of the comments on our message boards coincide with my personal opinion though, and that is to expect a season more successful than last time out but not quite good enough to push for promotion. A 10th-placed finish seems to be the most popular prediction.

Unfortunately, a lot of fans who use social media are probably in the 16-30 age bracket and, until two years ago, the majority of them had probably only seen us in the Premier League. That has created a very pessimistic outlook and there is still a general feeling that we have a right to be in the top-flight. There is a poisonous atmosphere surrounding the club a lot of the time. Thankfully, the club distance themselves from this, conduct their business professionally, and focus on the job in hand.

What went wrong last season? After a promising 2012/13 that saw you almost reach the play-offs, you flirted with the drop for a significant part of last season. What changed in order to make that happen?

To be fair, despite our final position, we also spent most of 2012/13 fighting against the drop. In February 2013, we were just three points above the drop zone. Thankfully, we made good use of the loan market – most notably with the signing of Craig Dawson – and went on an amazing run which very nearly converted a disastrous season into one that could have seen us playing at Wembley for the opportunity of playing Premier League football again.

By the time last season started, those loan players had returned to their respective clubs and we got off to the club’s worth start in over a century. Once you get on a bad run, it is very difficult to turn it around in this division.

Then, just as we did in 2012/13, we made some good loan signings – such as Lukas Jutkiewicz and Joe Mason – and put together a decent run of results. It wasn’t quite as good as the season before, hence the final league position, but it once again spared us the prospect of a relegation scrap.

We’ve almost completed the job of clearing out the Premier League wages and replaced those who were on those wages with solid, hard-working Championship players. Whether that will be enough remains to be seen, but I think we’ll be a lot harder to break down this season. We’re just desperately short on strikers, so I wouldn’t rule out another poor start.

Are your supporters fully behind the manager, and are you at all surprised Freedman carried on in his position given a few heavy defeats and the sack-happy state of football at the moment?

Going back to my earlier comment about some people believing we have a divine right to be in the Premier League – the abuse always starts with the manager, I’m afraid. There are some who have wanted him out since his first day in the job, then there are others who want to see him given time to put his plans into place.

I’m happy he’s still here. It’s been difficult to watch at times, but our squad is almost rid of so-called Premier League players who were happy to take money for sitting on the bench or in the stands and we’re now putting together a squad capable of holding their own in the Championship.

Freedman has been in the job for 22 months and will start the season as the fourth longest-serving boss in the division. That is a disgrace! There was a spell last season where I feared his time was up, but he stuck to his guns, came through it, and has hopefully learned from his mistakes – something a lot of managers don’t get the chance to do.

Whether he kept his job because we couldn’t afford to sack him is a plausible explanation, but we’ve wasted enough money on managers since Sam Allardyce left in 2007. It’s not only the cost of sacking/hiring a manager, but each one wants more money to bring in their own players and backroom staff. Our club needs stability again and I hope we go on to have a good season with Freedman at the helm, showing other clubs that patience sometimes pays off.

Talk us through the important comings and goings at Bolton this summer. Have you strengthened or taken a backwards step?

It may seem like an odd answer to give, because I think we have weakened the squad, but I think we have actually taken a step forward.

Without doubt, the squad is nowhere near as good as it was in the Premier League – but those days are gone. The players who stuck around after our relegation, probably for the money, had their chance to help us back and they blew it. Things got so bad in 2012/13 that a bunch of loan players, journeymen and kids we had never heard of came in and took their places.

They simply weren’t performing and, due to their weekly earnings, nobody would take them off our hands. We’ve lost names such as Kevin Davies, Chris Eagles, Zat Knight and Tyrone Mears, and although their replacements don’t fill you with excitement, we now have players who will fight for the shirt without thinking they are a guaranteed pick every weekend – although that is a little harsh on Davies, who was an excellent servant and one of my all-time favourite Wanderers players.

So, to summarise, the squad is definitely weaker in terms of quality but, without a doubt, it is stronger mentally and that will surely result in us making steps forward this season.

Who do you expect will be your key player this season?

If we could keep him fit for more than half a season, it would be difficult to pick anybody other than Mark Davies. He’s been with us since January 2009, but has played just 148 games. He’s a very talented player who has all the capabilities of a top-half Premier League midfielder, but he is very inconsistent and spends most of his time in the treatment room.

Tim Ream was our Player of the Year last season, so he’s another one to pick out, but I think our key player will probably end up being somebody we haven’t signed yet.

Last season, the loan arrival of Lukas Jutkiewicz turned our season around and, in the space of six months, he’s gone from being a Middlesbrough bench warmer to a likely-starter in the Premier League at Burnley. It’s a pity we couldn’t afford to bring him back as he genuinely enjoyed his time with us, but we’re reportedly close to bringing in a couple of forwards who could help us aim for the top this season.

Watford have just signed Keith Andrews on loan from you for the last 12 months of his contract. I know it’s been a while since he played in a white shirt, but why didn’t he make it at Bolton and what do the fans think of him?

Keith Andrews is a classic case of ‘the face just didn’t fit’. He’s remembered around here for his time at Blackburn and being out of his depth in the Premier League.

Going back to my earlier point about supporters thinking we’re better than we actually are – Andrews has always been a solid performer at this level, but he was castigated for every misplaced pass from the very first time he stepped out in a white shirt. The term ‘scapegoat’ comes to mind.

He was loaned out last season to make room for the signing of Jay Spearing, while we also have the likes of Medo Kamara and Josh Vela who can play in his position. He may not have age on his side, but he performed better for Brighton last season than any of the three names I just mentioned.

I don’t think he’s half as bad as some like to suggest, but he’s no spring chicken and draws a big wage from us. All things considered, it makes sense for us to move him on and I wish him well.

I know it’s the first game of the season and it’s tough to predict these things, but what do you predict the score will be on Saturday, and how do you think the game will pan out?

As I said before, I think we’ll be more difficult to break down this season but we’re desperately short of a goalscorer. Jermaine Beckford and Craig Davies are our only senior forwards going into the new season, although youngster Conor Wilkinson could appear after impressing in pre-season.

I think Wilkinson will be loaned out once we have made a signing or two, but it’s that lack of firepower that I see harming our chances at the weekend.

We won at Vicarage Road last season, although I think you were in the midst of a run which ended with Gianfranco Zola getting the boot, but I don’t think we’ll see a repeat this time. I’m going for a 2-1 home win.

Thanks for speaking to us. Enjoy the game tomorrow.

You can follow Burnden Aces on Twitter: @BurndenAces.

Look out for our Match Preview article later on Vital Watford.