Bolton Wanderers v Barnsley: Reds keeper Jack Walton looking forward to away trip home

IT is fair to say that the first round of the League Cup in its various guises – pitched in a midweek during peak holiday season – has never been the biggest seller historically.

Fans returning to stadiums across England after Covid-19 precluded their presence for the best part of 18 months may be a game-changer in that regard.

The opening salvos of the competition, which take place over the next few nights, may have never been so popular.

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In the final analysis, the sight of supporters back in their cherished environment means so much to so many people.

Going home: Barnsley’s Bolton-born goalkeeper Jack Walton is back in familiar territory tonight, playing in his home town in the Carabao Cup. Picture: Nick Potts/PA

Just ask Barnsley’s Bury-born goalkeeper Jack Walton – hoping to line up in front of family and friends at a place he knows well tonight – and Reds head coach Markus Schopp for that matter.

The healthy sight of around 1,500 visiting followers at the University of Bolton Stadium will represent further vindication.

Walton’s presence in the pre-match press conference suggests he will feature tonight against Wanderers, the club where he started his footballing journey at academy level before moving to Yorkshire at the age of 15.

It is no ordinary tie for the Lancastrian. Not least because you have to go back to March 23, 2019 for his last appearance in front of supporters – and his father.

Familiar faces: With fans allowed into grounds, Jack Walton is looking forward to seeing family and friends at the ground. Picture: Tony Johnson

He said: “I am a local lad from Bolton. It will be good to go home and a few of my mates will be going to the game, so it will be nice.

“My dad has also kind of not missed a game (before Covid). He did not get to a game last season, which is a bit strange for him. Having no fans was a big miss, but now we are glad to seeing things get back to normality.

“I had a chat the other day and I think the last time I played (in front of fans) might have been Walsall (in League One). So it is going to be strange, playing in front of fans. But it is so enjoyable going out there.

“You get abuse thrown at you, but it is all fun and games and you drive off it.”

Bonus. Barnsley head coach Markus Schopp is hoping success tonight can lead to more lucrative Carabao Cup ties for the Reds. (Photo by Markus Tobisch/SEPA.Media /Getty Images)

A four-figure following backed Barnsley in their league opener in South Wales on Saturday and today’s trip to a stadium where they have not won in seven previous visits will see the away section again populated well.

In Schopp’s native Austria, the teams whose support levels are comparable with those of an averaged-sized Championship club can be comfortably counted on one hand.

It represents another reason why the former TSV Hartberg head coach was so keen to try his hand in England.

The fact that Barnsley earned a glamour tie at Stamford Bridge in this competition last season has also not passed the 47-year-old by either.

Key saves: Harrogate Town goalkeeper Mark Oxley. (Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)

Schopp commented: “When I thought about football in England, it is all about emotions, enthusiasm and passion to be part of a team.

“I am so glad we had so many supporters over there in Cardiff and I know what it means to travel there. We did an awesome job there and they saw a team fighting until the last second to get a good result.

“That is the relationship between us and the fans; they give us the support and they give us all the effort to work in a good way.”

On potentially earning another crack at top-flight opposition after playing one of the most famous names in English football in Chelsea in two domestic cup competitions last term, Schopp continued: “We played Chelsea last season and as a Championship team, you always want to play against the best.

“Our goal is to get there again and it needs 100 per cent concentration, preparation and guys on the pitch who are prepared to do everything to get into the next round. That is what I have said.”

Schopp will make some changes this evening, although it remains to be seen if the club’s recent two Belgian recruits in forward duo in Obbi Oulare and Aaron Leya Iseka feature across the Pennines.

On one level, the fact that tonight’s game is being played without league points at stake suggests it would represent a good chance to take a look at the pair, recently signed from Standard Liege and Toulouse respectively.

Conversely, the duo’s lack of match fitness and need for the former Belgium under-21 team-mates to assimilate into the ways of Schopp may mean that the Austrian will err on the side of caution and play the long game.

He added: “First of all, we have to get them both fit and this is the most important thing.

“The second most important thing is to get them used to the way we want to play.

“Both players have a lot of quality. But to see the quality on the pitch, we have to work on the fundamental things.

“It is all about finding the right moment to bring them (in). I guess we will have a lot of fun with these guys.”

Last six games: Bolton LWWLWD; Barnsley WLDLDD.

Referee: D Webb (Co.Durham).

Last time: Bolton 3 Barnsley 1, December 2, 2017; Championship.