What do you think of when you hear the name “Bolton Wanderers”? The flair of Jay Jay Okocha? The wandering elbows of Kevin Davies? The apparent genius of Sam Allardyce? The crippling debt? The mismanagement? Yet more debt? Oh christ, not being able to put food on the table because of the constant cycle of debt and failure and falling? Falling ever deeper, deeper into the abyss while loose change falls from your hands and scatters to the winds? The constant, ever-present financial sword of Damocles hanging over a once-proud club, threatening to slice it from the Football League at any moment like a poorly managed tumor? Yeah, me too.
I’ve been craving some moneyball recently but I’ve not quite been able to scratch the itch, so I thought I’d start a new series in which we go pure moneyball and attempt to provide a financial advantage to a club that sorely needs it. I got here too late to save Bury, but Bolton will do. For those unfamiliar with the concept, I’m going to be playing by the same rules as Alex Stewart did in his Football Manager Meets Moneyball series. You can have a look at his experience using moneyball with Bristol City here, but I’m going to shamelessly copy and paste his rules here anyway. This is his condensed and FM-appropriate version of the list of principles published in Soccernomics.
1. Net wage spend is more important than net transfer spend (pp. 14-21)
2. Don’t needlessly splash out on new players or sell old ones when you take over a club – the New Manager Syndrome (pp. 21-22)
3. Don’t buy players who impressed at international tournaments: they’re likely to be overvalued and past performance is no indication of future performance, especially when they’re playing with a different team (pp. 22-24) – there are different incentives and a different tactical set-up at tournaments, and it’s a super small sample size.
4. Some nationalities are overrated, like Holland, Brazil, and England (pp. 24-25)
5. Sell your players at the right time: when they’re around 30 years old, goalkeepers aside (p. 29)
6. Use the wisdom of crowds: ask all your scouts and a Director of Football if you have one (pp. 43-44)
7. Buy players in their early twenties, which avoids the problems with not developing properly, and means previous statistics have greater value (pp. 45-47)
8. Centre-forwards cost more than they should (p. 47)
9. Sell any player if a club offers more than they are worth and try to replace them before they are sold (pp. 48-49)
10. Don’t buy players if you don’t need to: develop a youth network and try to develop your own players (pp. 49-51)
All clear? We’re basically going to try and create a conveyor belt of talent at Bolton, minimising risk by bringing in relatively proven players with potential in their early 20’s, selling them on when they’re fulfilling that potential and having someone else ready to step in to replace them. Basically it’s just a really smart way of doing transfer business and from my dalliances in the past, I can tell you that it’s very satisfying to pull off when you get it right.
I’m going to be using FMI’s transfer update which is correct as of the 24th August 2020 (I’m writing this on the 28th. It might be a bit out of date by time you read this, but oh well) and I’ve set up a database where every league in the game is viewable and every player with national or higher reputation is included, to give us a fairly large pool of potential players to work with without making my computer want to commit seppuku.
24th June 2019
I’ve picked Bolton, as I said before, because of their financial woes. We’re £41M in debt and we will be paying that off until the end of the 25/26 season via monthly payments of £500k, which is not going to be fun to manage seeing as our starting bank balance is under £1M. However, the good news is that for this first season at least, we’re a big fish in a small pond called League 2 and really should be strolling to promotion. Our first hurdle however will be sorting out the team’s cohesion and the atmosphere in the dressing room, both of which are on the floor.
My initial assessment of the balance of the squad is this:
A) We have 7 first team quality centre backs, which is far too many. One of them’s out until January with sprained ankle ligaments, but still. Over the course of the season I need to try and shift at least 2 of these to bring the wage bill down, whether that be on paying loans or permanent transfers.
B) Coupled with our abundance of centre backs, we’re also well stocked for strikers, attacking midfielders and central midfielders, yet we have no wingers, which leads me to think that we need a 3-5-2 with wing backs. I swear I’m not actively trying to copy Alex Stewart to this extent.
C) Although it’s technically against the rules, if we line up with a 3-5-2 with wing backs, our weakest areas seem to be left wing back and goalkeeper, so I may try to get a couple of signings in before the season begins. I feel like the extra quality will be worth the risk of making a couple of non-moneyball signings.
D) Probably our main strength is that we’re starting the game with a really, really good crop of young players aged 17-21, who I’m hoping to develop and sell for big bucks, one by one. After they leave though, our youth facilities aren’t great, so I’ll need to work on making us financially stable enough to upgrade them before we can become truly self-sufficient.
So here’s the 3-5-2 I promised – We’re going to try to play our way out of League 2 with high tempo, high pressing but thoughtful passing football. I’m not going to lie, it’s incredibly similar to my Everton system, except with a different shape and a couple of other tweaks.
So lets have a rundown of the squad, which, I was pleasantly surprised to find, is pretty good. In net, Matt Gilks is currently our number 1/Goalkeeping coach, but he’s pretty poor at both so I’m probably going to cancel his contract. Billy Crellin, on loan from Fleetwood, is the next best, but I don’t want to rely on loan players so I’m probably going to cancel his loan. After those 2 we have a pair of very promising young lads called Matthew Alexander and Luke Hutchison. They’ll be providing backup to whoever I bring in as our first choice.
As I said before, we’re overly well stocked at centre back for a club in our financial situation. I’m not happy that 33 year old Alex Baptiste has just joined as one of our highest earners on a 2 year contract as that just screams bad business, even though he is currently our captain and our best option here. Harry Brockbank is one of our most promising players and has got future captain/future goldmine written all over him. The rest are fairly average with varying amounts of potential. I’ll probably try to shift Taft and Santos, who are about as good as they’re going to get.
Welsh-Australian Gethin Jones is by far our best option at right wing back and will be backed up by 20 year old Jak Hickman until I can bring in someone better.
18 year old Jordan Boon is a great left back prospect but will need time to adjust to being a wing back. 17 year old Joe White is another good young prospect and will be in the mix. I need to bring in a senior player here.
In central midfield, Sarcevic and Comley will be my preferred combination. I don’t want to lean on Tom White too heavily if I can help it as he’s on loan, while Sonny Graham and Regan Riley both have excellent potential.
Attacking midfield’s a tricky one. I have 3 excellent options and like at centre back, that’s really too many for a club like us. As the oldest and most immediately valuable, I’ll be trying to flog arguably our best player, Ali Crawford. Bit of a weird strategy, I’ll grant you, but I’m certain that Darcy and Politic can thrive in his absence.
We’re extremely lucky to have Nathan Delfouneso in his prime up front, as he’s exactly the kind of player I want leading the line at this level. He’s quick, technical and good off the ball, all of which should hopefully add up to a perfect League 2 striker. However, we also have 31 year old Eoin Doyle, who’s perfectly good now, but who’s also tied to a 4 year contract. I need to sell him sooner rather than later as his £375k value is going to plummet soon, as is the number of clubs willing to take him. I also have 3 young strikers, 2 of whom (Brown-Sterling and Brown) have massive potential. Faal doesn’t though and will probably find himself leaving before too long as well.
The bookies are pretty positive that newly promoted Salford can shoot straight up to League 1 as Champions, but we’re touted for 2nd place, which seems doable. The board want us to finish 1st, however.
Before we get into the season, I just want to lay out a few player traits that are always sticking points for me in terms of moneyball transfers and that I imagine in the lower leagues are going to make finding players to sign incredibly difficult.
Potential’s an obvious one, but an important one. I want every player I bring in to have the potential to improve in some way or another, as this will raise their market value and we want to sell players on for more than we sign them for. Fairly straightforward stuff.
This is slightly misleading, as recent form isn’t a big deal at all. How well a player’s played over a season or 2 though is huge and will be a major factor in whether or not I decide to sign a player.
Squad fit is a nice one to have, but if I’m honest it’s not a deal breaker for me as I’m not too sure how it affects things in FM. Seeing that a player won’t fit in at all can put me off, but if they’re going to be on the periphery of the squad I’m generally fine with that.
Consistency is a huge one for me. Seeing that a player is inconsistent usually kills off any interest of doing a deal. I can’t stand not knowing if a player’s going to turn up for a game or not.
I don’t expect personality to come into the equation much at first to be honest, as at this level I find that most players have balanced personalities. As the regens start coming through though it’s going to start being a bigger issue, as they’re more prone to being unambitious or difficult in some other way, which is a big no-no.
Like Consistency, this is more of a personal preference, but I just can’t bring myself to sign anyone who goes missing in the big games.
So these are the things I’ll be looking for, as well as the right attributes, being available for the right price and demanding the right wages. Erm… Wish me luck.
3rd September 2019
Well that was less gruelling than I expected, but I suspect that’s just because we’re in the first Summer and in this database there are a lot of free agents right off the bat. After a large number of players joined us on trial for the pre-season, former Liverpool and Man U youth player Sam Hart is the man I chose to be our left wing back, former Arsenal trainee Josh Vickers was brought in as our first choice goalie and former West Ham lad Charlie Seaman… Well to be honest, my Director of Football signed Charlie while I wasn’t paying attention. His signing privileges have since been revoked, but to be fair, Charlie will be decent backup at right wing back so I’m happy to have him.
There isn’t much to report in terms of outgoings. I did indeed cancel Gilks’ contract and Crellin’s loan and I tried to get rid of Taft and Santos, but only had offers from clubs who wanted to loan them for free. One thing I did manage to do though was to get Ali Crawford off the wage bill. St Mirren have loaned him for the season, paying 100% of his £2,000 per week wages and an extra £23k per month, which all in all will net us about £300k this season. Better than nothing. Newcastle teased me all Summer as they toyed with the idea of signing Harry Brockbank, but as much as I told the press I’d be willing to talk, no offers ever came.
In terms of the league, we’ve not had a thoroughly convincing start. After 8 matches, we sit 9th in League 2, having won 4, drawn 2 and lost 2. The performances however have been extremely promising, even at this early stage. We were extremely unlucky to lose both matches against Forest Green Rovers and Salford City, in which we spurned 5 clear cut chances and let in 2 screamers by the same wing back respectively, so I’m not too worried really. When I took over, the team cohesion and dressing room atmosphere were both rock bottom, so as we build both of those up and start to gel, we’ll get the results we deserve. Probably.
Oh, and we’re already in the red. Aces.
1st February 2020
Alright, no more transfer activity over January despite my efforts to thin our numbers, but we’ve come roaring back from that inauspicious start to sit comfortably on top of the league table.
We’re absolutely dominating, with the highest average possession, most goals scored and best passing accuracy in the league, as well as the fact that we’ve not lost a league match since Salford, 28 games ago. For balance though, we’ve done absolutely nothing in the cups, leaving the Leasing.com trophy in the group stage and the FA Cup in the 2nd round against Wigan Athletic. For some reason there was no League Cup this season, which I put down to a glitch in the FMI transfer update.
The most pressing issue at the minute though is our finances. We’re currently £3 million in the red and it’s looking so bleak that the board have slashed our wage budget, which I was sticking to religiously but which I am now massively over. We really, really need people to start making bids for our players.
25th April 2020
Bish, bash and furthermore, bosh.
Not an incredible achievement so I’ll try not to milk it too much, but we cantered to the League 2 title.
Our unbeaten run ended up stretching to 33 games, but Bradford made sure it didn’t reach 34. Bastards. Overall though, we ended the season in pretty good form.
As anticipated, Delfouneso absolutely tore the League 2 defences to shreds as the league’s top scorer, but what I didn’t anticipate was that Eddie Brown would have such a great breakthrough season, scoring 11 goals, registering 10 assists and eventually ousting Eoin Doyle from the starting lineup at just 19 years old. Very promising.
As well as Eddie, Sam Hart racked up a really good number of assists in his debut season, while Gethin Jones and Jordan Boon weren’t too far behind.
In terms of our most consistently good performer though, it was Alex Baptiste. A good show from the old man, but his attributes are dropping like a stone and I want him gone this Summer. He’s got a 25% promotion wage rise in his contract which means that at 34, he’s going to be a squad player for us in League 1 earning almost 5 grand a week. Anyway… Great job, Alex.
Incidentally, I have been very stubbornly forbidding any kind of agreed wage rises in player and staff contracts throughout the season. I think it’s worth doing as in this save more than any, I want to keep a really tight handle on our wage expenditure. These pre-existing contracts can’t be helped though.
My main focus this summer is going to be on shifting some high earners and especially those of a certain age. Obviously Baptiste, but Eoin Doyle and Ali Crawford also spring to mind. I also really, really need to cut down our centre back supply. I need to figure out if any of our youths are ready to step up, but if they aren’t, I might look to sign a striker to replace Doyle, a box-to-box midfielder to replace Tom White, whose loan we will not be renewing despite his good performances this season, a right wing back to replace Seaman, whose contract I won’t be renewing either, and perhaps a centre back with potential, but that’s only if I can shift enough of the duds I already have.
Most importantly of all though, I’ll be trying to raise north of £3.8M in any way I can to drag us back into the black. Everybody at this club is for sale. Please somebody make me some offers.
That’s that then. Season 1 in the bag. I’ve tried to make this episode a bit more brief than the Everton episodes, which I worried could drag on at times. Let me know what you reckon. See you in 20/21…