As much as fans of a team are often reminded not to fall in love with loan players, it’s safe to say James Trafford already has Bolton Wanderers supporters head over heels.
The future looks bright for the goalkeeper, who has been touted to go right to the top by those at both Bolton and Manchester City.
And his parent Club would’ve been impressed with his performance on Sunday, when the young gloveman lifted the Papa Johns Trophy with the Whites, beating Plymouth Argyle 4-0 in the Final at Wembley.
“We set out at the start of the competition to win it,” he affirms. “It’s the first competition I’ve won and been a major part of. You’ll always remember your first one and that’s what we’re going to do.
“We back ourselves to keep clean sheets every game. We knew that if we could be clinical and score goals, we backed ourselves to win. I only had one or two shots to save, so we did really well as a unit to keep the clean sheet.”
The stopper made a crucial save to deny Ryan Hardie in the first period with Wanderers 2-0 up in the driving seat. It was exactly the type of shift the Trotters supporters are used to seeing on a weekly basis from him.
At Bolton, things have fallen perfectly into place for Trafford, who has formed a real connection with everyone around the Club, especially the Trotters’ fanbase.
On the back of a disappointing stint across the M65 at Accrington Stanley at the beginning of last term, the young stopper arrived in the January transfer window on loan from Premier League giants City to lend a helping hand for the second half of the campaign.
When Wanderers came knocking again this summer, it was a no-brainer for the starlet.
“It was an unbelievably easy decision to make,” he declares. “I knew that making the step up to the Championship would’ve been tough and I wasn’t guaranteed to play anywhere. I knew I wanted to come back to Bolton and build on everything we had last season and all that momentum.
“When I started, I went to Accrington on loan and it didn’t really work out, but I learned a lot when I came to Bolton and loved my six months.
“The two loan spells have helped me massively. I’ve developed so much on and off the pitch. It couldn’t have gone any better. I’ve grown up loads when I went on loan, that’s young for a goalie.
He hit the ground running in his first temporary stint, becoming the first Bolton keeper to register four shut-outs in his opening four games in the Club’s history, immediately endearing himself to the Whites faithful in the process.
“There were a lot of doubts around signings because the team were about 18th when I joined,” he adds. “From the outside looking in, signing a 19-year-old lad who, like people say, failed at Accrington, was quite a risk.
“The staff believed in me and I believed in myself. To keep four clean sheets, it couldn’t have started any better.”
Bolton might have taken a risk on Trafford, but they’ve certainly reaped the rewards of his progression.
💫 A word with the loanees!#EFL | #PapaJohnsTrophy pic.twitter.com/rz4JRa3CnM
— Papa Johns Trophy (@PapaJohnsTrophy) April 2, 2023
After helping the newly promoted Whites consolidate their place in Sky Bet League One with a ninth-place finish in 2021/22, Trafford returned for a season-long loan this term.
Only Leyton Orient’s Lawrence Vigouroux has more clean sheets than the highly-rated gloveman across the top four divisions of English football this season.
Trafford made further history when Bolton went on a record-breaking run between December and February, stringing together nine consecutive home fixtures without conceding a single goal in both the league and the Trophy.
“It’s nice to leave my mark,” he notes. “I only knew it was a record when I got told when I did press afterwards. To do it, being only 20, is good for me. They’ve had loads of really good goalies in the past as well.
“Bolton play a way that suits me, playing out from the back and playing high. It’s been the perfect match really.”
The Cumbrian-born keeper started his footballing journey as an outfield player with hometown team Carlisle United and it was only by fluke – with encouragement from his dad – that he eventually found his place between the sticks.
“Looking back now, I was probably never going to get kept on and get a contract,” he admits.
“My dad always used to put my goalie gloves in the car because my mum used to take me to training. He always said I was a really good goalkeeper and I was like, ‘yeah, but I want to be a midfielder.’
“One day, they needed someone to go in goal. I said, ‘go for it. I’ll go in.’ They must’ve been impressed because they went to the goalie coach, Ben Benson, who is now at Blackburn Rovers, and asked if I could join his session.
“My dad had no clue about football and he still doesn’t really know too much now. If there’s one thing in the world I’ve got to thank him for, it’s telling me I was a good goalie!”
Fast forward to the present day and Trafford is now an England youth international with a promising career ahead of him, both with Club and country, with hopes to follow in the footsteps of the likes of former EFL loanee Jordan Pickford.
Back in 2018, the emerging talent was called up to represent the Three Lions at Under-17s level. He has since gone on to play for his country across the age groups right through to the Under-21s and has aspirations to add international silverware to his CV in the summer with Lee Carsley’s side.
“My ambition is to be the number one for England one day, which I think I will be,” he asserts. “In the Under-21s, our target is to win the Euros in the summer.
“It’s a dream come true to have made my debut for England at the younger ages. As a kid, you don’t know what Club you’re going to be at one day, but you’ll always be English and that’s the only national team you can play for.”
Trafford has also managed to impress City boss Pep Guardiola, alerting the Spaniard to his qualities during a post-training penalty shoot-out following a 1-1 draw with Liverpool in November 2020.
“I was always staying out for as long as I can as I always do in case anyone needed any finishing practice,” he recalls.
“I like to have a bit of banter and Pep was taking a penalty and he said, ‘you can have anything if you want if you save it.’ I said, ‘can I start on the weekend?’ He was laughing but I saved it! I didn’t start unfortunately.”
This isn’t Trafford’s first time at Wembley, having travelled to the capital with City to see Guardiola’s men lift the Carabao Cup for the fourth time on the trot during the 2020/21 campaign, beating Tottenham Hotspur 1-0 in the Final.
In the Semi-Final victory against local rivals Manchester United at Old Trafford, he was called upon to deputise as a last-minute replacement on the bench for understudy Scott Carson, who had come down with a bout of COVID-19.
It was all very sudden for Trafford, who stepped into the backup role as a substitute.
“I knew in the moment that it was probably the last time I was going to be on the bench because I always want to play,” he says. “I was at all these big stadiums doing the warm-ups and I was even at Wembley for the Carabao Cup.”
He returned in a different capacity at the weekend as Wanderers’ first choice keeper between the sticks after helping Ian Evatt’s men to reach Wembley, seeing off Trafford’s former loan team Accrington Stanley in the Semi-Final.
“It was always a realistic target for us to get to the Final,” he explains. “When we beat Accrington, it was a relief because there was a lot of pressure and we were expected to win.
“Being on loan, it’s a good experience for me and that’s what I’m here for. It’s a good milestone and something to look back on when we’re older. It means a lot to me to play at Wembley – it’s the one significant stadium in England.”
The feeling between Trafford and the Trotters is mutual. Over 34,000 Whites fans cheered after him as he transported the trophy around the hallowed turf to give supporters a glimpse of the silverware.
“I love all the staff,” he adds. “Even with the playing staff, it’s a different relationship to the non-playing staff. I’m really close with the kitman (Ted Moulden), and the sports scientists and physios. They’re all people I’ll continue to speak to even after the summer.”
No doubt the sight of Trafford giving a roaring rendition of ‘Whites Army’ alongside teammate Conor Bradley will live long in the memory of Wanderers fans.