Barnsley FC's Luca Connell recalls his bittersweet time at weekend opponents Bolton Wanderers

LUCA CONNELL'S footballing upbringing at Bolton Wanderers is one that he will never forget.

The Barnsley midfielder, who makes his first return to the Whites on Saturday, recalls being a 17-year-old kid having 'the time of my life' in the first team in 2019.

Behind the scenes, the once proud Lancashire club - founder members of the Football League - were approaching financial meltdown.

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His relative youth at the time insulated him from the impact. He was a teenager still living at home, but living the dream on the pitch after being fast-tracked to the first team following the departures of senior players - often with young families and mortgages to pay.

Wanderers were relegated to League One in the spring of 2019, but that did not tell the half of it.Players and coaching staff went unpaid for spells, one game was called off due to a wages dispute with players refusing to play, while a food bank even opened to assist staff who had not been paid. The club, unsurprisingly, entered administration.

Connell would go onto be sold to Scottish giants Celtic in the summer of 2019.

Bittersweet is perhaps the only word to describe his time at Bolton.

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Now 21, Connell said: "I was young when I got exposed to the leagues and men's football.

SETTLING IN: Barnsley's Luca Connell (right) battles with Sheffield Wednesday's Liam Palmer earlier this season in their League One encounter. Picture: Steve EllisSETTLING IN: Barnsley's Luca Connell (right) battles with Sheffield Wednesday's Liam Palmer earlier this season in their League One encounter. Picture: Steve Ellis
SETTLING IN: Barnsley's Luca Connell (right) battles with Sheffield Wednesday's Liam Palmer earlier this season in their League One encounter. Picture: Steve Ellis

"But I think that helped because the way the club was in at the time, it wasn't easy. I have been to Celtic and Barnsley and they have been easier places to be at with what is going on.

"But Bolton helped me as it showed me what it can be like if it is not going well.

"From the outside, it looks quite easy going in training and playing games. But the lads weren't getting paid and they had families to look after and bills to pay like everyone else. It was a tough time for them.

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“Although I was just enjoying it every day, going in and training with the first team and playing games. I was only a 17-year-old boy and did not have many responsibilities really and was enjoying playing football. I was having the time of my life.

"It's obviously one of the jobs where you are usually fortunate to have a good wage. But you still have mortgages to pay and that was tough and not nice to see that as a young lad."

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Connell is just grateful that Bolton is a much happier place these days - although hopefully not for a few hours on Saturday.

He is looking forward to seeing one of two old faces still at the club from his time there including kit manager Ted Moulden, a defender coming through the age groups with Connell before his career was ended by injury in 2018 - and things took a different turn.

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There will also be sentiment among his family in attendance at a place that they know well.

Connell, who made the daily trip as a youngster from his home city of Liverpool, added: "I was there for ten or 11 years from seven to 18. It is all I knew.

"Through the week and the weekend, my whole life was going to Bolton and travelling and my mum and dad knew it (the route) more than me and they were driving me there four or five times a week. I am grateful to them for helping me out.

"It will be good for my mum, dad and grandad and all my family to go and watch the game as I spent so much time there. I basically grew up there and was there five times a week.

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"It will be good to see a few familiar faces, but you have got to go there and do your job.

"It has changed a lot and I still know one or two faces in the team and one of the lads who I was a scholar with. It didn't go too well for him and he got injured and couldn't carry on. The club gave him a kit man's job, so it will be good to see him."

Barnsley head across the Pennines on the back of a surprise 2-0 league reverse to visiting Exeter last weekend, which clipped their wings after an eye-catching run.

Some excellent results on the road at the likes of Sheffield Wednesday and Ipswich Town have proved that Michael Duff's side can handle the most testing arenas in the division, as they must do on Saturday.

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Their ability to react instantly to defeats so far this season is another encouraging facet and helps to explain why they have moved on quickly from events against Exeter.

Assistant head coach Martin Paterson said: "We have done well away against some of the bigger teams.

"We have been consistent with our messages and although we were disappointed last weekend, we quickly got over it on Monday morning.

"It is such a tough league and it's hard not to have a couple of off-days - the players are human beings - and they do have off-days for a variety of reasons.

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“As a staff, we are hoping that as we continue to work and improve the players, that if they do have an off-day, it's because the quality has let them down and a bit of luck here and there.

"But everything else - the non-negotiables such as the running and effort - have been spot on."