Stepping Up: Contrasting fortunes for Pratley and Eagles at Bolton Wanderers
Covering the Football League – and the Championship in particular – rather than the Premier League or a specific club, it is impossible to escape comments questioning the quality of players making the step up from the second tier to the top flight. “Championship player”, they say dismissively. So can Darren Pratley and Chris Eagles dodge this label?
Owen Coyle’s summer transfer dealings at Bolton Wanderers represented something of a mixed bag, but there certainly seemed more inclination to put faith in Football League players than could be found at most other Premier League clubs. Bolton lost a number of squad members, either for undisclosed fees or on free transfers. They had few first-team players to replace, so it made sense to look to the Championship for bargain additions to the ranks. Understandably, Coyle opted to head to Turf Moor and see which of his former Burnley charges could reasonably be expected to make the step up to the top flight. He chose Chris Eagles and Tyrone Mears, while also recruiting Darren Pratley from Swansea City when the midfielder’s contract expired.
Coyle’s other business consisted of taking punts on a mixture of permanent deals and loans for experienced Premier League players with a point to prove (Sanli Tuncay and Nigel Reo-Coker) or promising youngsters from bigger clubs (David N’Gog, Gael Kakuta and Dedryck Boyata). Both of these categories have served Bolton well in recent years and both Chelsea and Manchester City must have considered the progression made by Jack Wilshere and Daniel Sturridge during their loan spells at the Reebok Stadium when farming out Kakuta and Boyata respectively.
It is interesting to see now where the Football League recruits fit into Coyle’s plan. Mears suffered a similar fate to Bolton’s other long-term injury absentees Lee Chung-Yong and Stuart Holden when breaking his leg in training less than a week after joining the club, so he is yet to make his debut. In contrast, Pratley and Eagles have both played a part in the opening months of Bolton’s campaign despite looking like squad members rather than regular starters upon their arrival.
With Chung-Yong and Holden both missing from the Bolton midfield thus far, Coyle would have been keen on Pratley and Eagles settling in quickly. Pratley was bedded in gradually, a late substitute for the first three games of the season before playing a longer period of half an hour from the bench in a 5-0 defeat at home to Manchester United. This result is indicative of Bolton’s form either side of the 4-0 win at QPR on the opening day and the 5-0 victory against Stoke last weekend. It hasn’t been the ideal team to settle into and some of the blame has been laid at Pratley’s door by supporters.
Matilda Hankinson, from the Bolton Wanderers blog Lion of Vienna Suite, says: “Pratley has struggled to make an impression, but that is largely due to the overwhelming number of central midfielders at Bolton. He’s fitted in well in a five-man midfield, but has less of a presence in a 4-4-2 in that he struggles to retain or reclaim possession. He’s had his moments of brilliance but it’s been just that, moments. Hopefully he can grow more into the role as the season progresses.”
There is certainly evidence of potential that Pratley will find his role within the Bolton setup, as seen by the differences between his performances in the two-goal defeats to Sunderland and his former employers Swansea City: