To say that times have been tough for Bolton Wanderers over the past few years would be an understatement. In just a couple of weeks the Trotters will kick off their League One campaign at home to Sheffield United, just over four years after being relegated from the Premier League. During that time, the club has undergone a number of managerial changes, the sad death of their chairman, as well as flirting with administration on more than one occasion. There have been few highlights along the way, with players becoming disgruntled at not getting paid as the club sank like a stone on its way to a disastrous 24th-placed finish in the Championship last campaign.
Through all of the doom and gloom surrounding the Macron Stadium has risen 20-year-old defender Rob Holding. Whilst many of his more experienced teammates failed to stand up and be counted last term, the youngster came out of nowhere to provide a spark of hope during what is surely a dark age for many Bolton supporters. Holding only made his debut last August, in a 1-0 defeat to Burton Albion in the League Cup, but managed to pick up the club’s Player of the Season just nine months later. A big future lies ahead and a number of Premier League clubs have expressed an interest in signing him, including a £2 million bid from Arsenal this week, which has subsequently been accepted by the Trotters.
The approval of Arsene Wenger is huge for any youngster, but the news of the Gunners interest has also surprised many this week. Not least Arsenal supporters, who were expecting the club to pursue a big-name centre-back, not one who has made just 31 career appearances, with none of those being above Championship level. Laurent Koscielny’s performances in the European Championships this summer have consolidated him as one of the continent’s best in his position, and many supporters believe that another centre-back of a similar calibre, as well as a clinical goalscorer, would give them a good chance of challenging for the league title. Holding does not fit this description just yet, and it would be fair to say that many would be somewhat underwhelmed if he were to be the only defender signed this transfer window.
Nevertheless, Holding is tipped to have a big future in the game with Everton and Bournemouth two of the clubs rumoured to have been interested in his signature. He has been compared to England defender Gary Cahill, and although this may merely be due to the fact that Cahill was also at Bolton, it shows just how highly-rated he is in some quarters. Whether he can make it at the Emirates Stadium is a different matter, with Calum Chambers being an example of a young defender who has struggled to make a real impact during his time with the Gunners.
Of course, it is not expected that he will be first choice should he make the move to the Emirates, but with a lot of talk that Chambers will be heading out on loan, Wenger may see Holding as a like-for-like replacement as Arsenal’s fourth-choice centre-back. The Frenchman has a preference for players comfortable with the ball at their feet and Holding certainly fits the mould. His composure on the ball belies his tender years and in that respect the move makes a lot of sense.
With Per Mertesacker now 31 and there still being a number of doubts surrounding Gabriel, it is not unfeasible that he could force his way into the first eleven, but with Wenger expected to bring in another defender it would appear as though Holding will have to bide his time before making his big break at the club. He is still extremely inexperienced but possesses a strong set of attributes that Wenger can work with.
Holding’s performances last season attracted the attention of England Under-21s manager Gareth Southgate, who called him up to his squad for this summer’s Toulon Tournament, which England eventually went on to win. Although many Bolton supporters were hopeful that the defender would stay with the club he has been with since the age of seven, they will certainly not begrudge him the chance to make the switch to North London, providing the deal is right for the Whites.
The tendency for clubs to scour the lower leagues for talent has increased in recent years following the success of the likes of John Stones and Dele Alli, who were signed for relatively modest fees but have gone on to excel in the top flight. Whether Holding can enjoy similar success is a big ask but the fact that Wenger seems to think he is capable of it stands him in very good stead.
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