Pete Hall charts the rapid rise of 19-year-old Zach Clough, whose goal-getting has got Bolton fans hot to trot...
The 60-second story
- Date of birth: March 8, 1995
- Place of birth: Manchester, England
- Height: 5ft 7in
- Position: Striker
- Current club: Bolton (4 apps, 3 goals)
- International: N/a
On Bolton's books since the age of eight, diminutive striker Clough has been tipped for the top for some time by his youth team coaches after defying his modest height to score goals at every level.
The Manchester-born forward was recommended to former Trotters boss Dougie Freedman, but the Scot largely kept youth players away from the senior team, and even had them train at a separate site until the club’s next generation had proved themselves.
Clough netted the winner against Bolton’s Lancashire rivals Wigan on his senior debut in early January, and followed it up with a double on his Championship bow against Wolves. His first strike that day was a sublime free-kick, which he took off regular taker Tim Ream after declaring (correctly) to his team-mate that he would "put it across the keeper into the top corner".
With confidence high, Clough then took on the might of Liverpool, winning a penalty that almost helped send the five-time European champions crashing out of the FA Cup. Not bad for a month’s work.
Why you need to know him
New Bolton supremo Neil Lennon clearly doesn't share Freedman’s reservations. The Northern Irishman described Clough as a "street kid" and likened the 19-year-old's playing style to Wayne Rooney's. "But he's not a ragamuffin in that respect," continued Lennon. "The street kids are the ones who fall over, cut their knee, wipe it off and get on with it, whereas sometimes you see stretchers and physios coming on."
Two days after his Wolves double, Clough signed a new deal until 2017 to ward off immediate interest from the likes of Liverpool, who had been eyeing the tricky No.10 before his senior debut.
After bagging a brace against Wolves, Lennon decided to bring the youngster off after 70 minutes – much to Clough’s dismay – with Bolton's FA Cup replay in mind. Already the young striker is proving hugely important.
Against the Reds, Clough was the focal point of the Trotters’ attack and anything but overawed by the occasion (though the boyhood Manchester City fan didn't get to fulfil his wish of grabbing Mario Balotelli's shirt post-match). It's a fearlessness that should prove vital as Bolton aim to turn their Championship fortunes around.
Despite his slight stature, Clough is not afraid to take a hit, and is often back to his feet in an instant. Composed on the ball, the fleet-footed forward annoys defenders with his quick footwork and eye for goal.
Often this bamboozling leads to the more combative centre-backs aiming for the 19-year-old’s legs, but time and again he simply shrugs it off and gets on with it – a trait a young Cristiano Ronaldo was acclaimed for.
Such calmness in pressure situations was exemplified by his chipped finish against Wigan in the Trotters’ FA Cup third round win. Clough isn't afraid to shoot from range either, as his expertly-taken free-kick against Wolves showed, and that faith in his own ability is to be admired for one so young.
"Every time I play football I enjoy myself when I walk on the pitch," Clough declared before facing Liverpool. "I don’t really feel nervous, I just take it in my stride. I won’t have a sleepless night if the boss tells me on Tuesday that I’m playing on Wednesday. I can’t wait – I will be so excited."
While he doesn't mind getting the odd kicking from burlier opponents, his diminutive size means he can be overpowered. Body strength will come with age, but at 5ft 7in he stands out at Championship level.
He struggles to track back when up against stronger and more imposing players, and can be easily brushed aside. With that, his fitness levels will have to be upped if he is to cope with the rigours of the senior game.
Clough also came under scrutiny after winning his penalty against Liverpool, having seemingly gone down from little to no contact from Reds defender Martin Skrtel.
Did you know?
Clough was born on the same day that Bolton’s Emile Heskey made his debut for Leicester in March 1995. Bizarrely, the youngster's 70-year-old grandmother was trending on Twitter following his debut goal, after a hysterical phone call she made to the local radio station declaring her pride. "She was very emotional so I decided to go round and see her on the way home and got a big hug," Clough admitted.
"He says he’s 19 but I think he’s older," skipper David Wheater told FFT after Clough's brace against Wolves, presumably before demanding a photocopy of his passport. "He’s one for the future but we might do well to keep hold of him because all the top clubs will be looking at him. He can do that to Liverpool, definitely. Part of me doesn’t want him to because they might take him off us."
What happens next?
Clough is new on the scene, but everyone in the Bolton area has been talking about him for some time. Should he build on the platform that he has created for himself, an upward move could be in the offing eventually.
"I’ve been popping goals in for a long time but these moments have been a long time coming," said the striker, demonstrating confidence appealing to bigger clubs.
Just don’t expect a step up any time soon – Clough still has plenty to do to convince that his slight build will not become a major hindrance. One thing's for sure at the moment, his team-mates are won over.