A-Leagues star once compared to Rooney made $5.5m sacrifice to ‘save’ historic club

On the eve of Adelaide United’s blockbuster Semi Final second leg against the Central Coast Mariners, Zach Clough sits down with KEEPUP’s Nick D’Urbano to chart his journey from bursting onto the scene at Bolton Wanderers, to being sold to help keep the club alive & rejuvenating his career at their arch-rivals before landing in Australia.

In January 2017, Zach Clough was flying. Two years on from his memorable debut, the attacking midfielder was one of Bolton Wanderers’ prime movers.

He was the epitome of a local success story. Born 30 minutes away in Denton, Clough joined the Wanderers academy at the age of eight and worked his way through the ranks for 10 years before eventually reaching the senior set-up and becoming a Bolton regular.

The then 21-year-old had scored nine goals in half a season in England’s League One, and began garnering interest from bigger clubs who wanted to pry away one of the best young prospects outside the Premier League.

Clough was a bright spark in a dark time for a proud club that were once a top-flight mainstay but found themselves teetering on the edge of collapse. Bolton had been relegated from the Championship at the conclusion of the 2016-17 season, falling to the third tier for the first time since 1993 and only just staved off administration after the club accumulated a monster debt in years prior.

The club’s coffers were running dry and there was an offer from Nottingham Forest for Clough’s services that they simply couldn’t refuse.

“I had to leave Bolton to kind of save the club,” he told KEEPUP.

“I went to (Nottingham) Forest for quite a transfer fee and that was kind of to save the club and to help pay the wages of the players at the time because players weren’t getting paid at Bolton.”

A bid of close to $5.5 million was put on the table along with a long-term contract, that would see Clough join the then Championship side on a deal that ran until 2021.

The Wanderers eventually went into administration a couple years later and only just survived. After relegation to League Two, Bolton are slowly making their way back up the pyramid and those involved have experienced – in a footballing sense – all the imaginable highs and lows.

Bolton Wanderers fans protest former chairman and majority stakeholder Ken Anderson.

As has Clough, who experienced them all from purely a playing sense. His move to Forest didn’t pan out the way he was hoping and only now is he starting to truly rejuvenate his career at Adelaide United.

Now, at age 28, the attacking midfielder has been able to carve out a relatively successful stint in the City of Churches. After initially signing until the end of last season, Clough has extended his stay until May 2024, the longest contract he’s signed since his time at Forest.

READ: The role of a Sydney star in Clough’s move to the A-Leagues

As he sits down with KEEPUP on the eve of their Semi Final second leg against the Central Coast Mariners, he’s one of the more experienced heads in a locker room which boasts some of the country’s most prodigious young talents – who are catching the eye of overseas clubs.

Nestory Irankunda has Bayern Munich among others knocking on his proverbial door, while Jonny Yull was on trial at Chelsea not long ago.

Clough is all too familiar with this. Everton, Middlesbrough and Fulham were reportedly after him when he burst onto the scene at Bolton.

Bristol City came calling, but he knocked them back before Forest arrived.

He understands the intricacies around having to make a career-altering decision, something the likes of Irankunda and co will be faced with at some stage in the future.

“When it comes to making those sort of big decisions, I think it’s always difficult to make the right decision,” he said.

“I don’t think you know if you’ve made the right decision until 12 months down the line and how things are panning out… I think everybody will make mistakes along the way, but it’s just about working hard and and controlling what you can control every single day.

“I think the young players here have got so much ability and so much talent that hopefully they will make the right decision and and go to the right clubs.

“Hopefully, they’ll just continue to work hard and get more and more opportunities.”

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Opportunities were key to Clough making an immediate splash for Bolton. In fact, all he needed was one from then coach Neil Lennon to show the footballing world what he was capable of.

In 2015, a 19-year-old Clough was thrust into the spotlight at Bolton’s home ground – the University of Bolton (then, Macron) Stadium – for his debut against arch-rivals Wigan Athletic in the FA Cup.

With time running out, Clough famously scored the winner to send the home fans into delirium, kick-starting a whirlwind first month of his professional career.

That evening he led the line alongside none other than England legend Emile Heskey, before being replaced by former Barcelona and Chelsea forward Eidur Gudjohnson. After the game, he was described as a “special player” by Lennon.

His late winner meant he joined the likes of Heskey, Daniel Sturridge and Nat Lofthouse in an illustrious club to have scored on Bolton debut.

It was nothing short of a perfect debut.

“That was an incredible experience,” he says recalling that famous winner.

“To make your debut in a in a big derby like that and the two clubs had just come out of the Premier League.

“So two really good squads. The (current) manager of Wigan was playing too, Shaun Maloney. It was a good game and the feeling of scoring is probably the best feeling I’ve experienced in football still today.”


Days later, Lennon, signed him to a two-year deal and even gave him the ultimate praise, likening him to a young Wayne Rooney due to his “street kid style”.

On league debut later that month, Clough scored a double in three minutes to get a draw against Wolves and in the next round of the FA Cup he won a penalty in a 2-1 defeat to Liverpool at home.

Gudjohnsen dispatched that penalty to give Bolton the lead, before late goals from Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho saw Brendon Rodgers’ side break Wanderers hearts.

Clough’s performance on the national stage drew enormous praise, being described as the best player on the pitch by club legend Fabrice Muamba – despite sharing the field with the likes of Sterling, Coutinho, Steven Gerrard and going toe-to-toe with defensive trio Martin Skrtel, Emre Can and Mamadou Sakho.

Clough had the world at his feet and was learning from the best on a week-to-week basis. It was an apprenticeship like nothing else, being guided by players who had featured at FIFA World Cups, European Championships and in the UEFA Champions League.

One of his many mentors was none other than the 62-time England international Heskey, who had just returned from a two-year stint in the A-League Men at Newcastle Jets – it seems as if their paths have always been weirdly intertwined.

“I’ve spoken to him a little bit while I’ve been out here, and he was just saying how much he loved it here,” Clough said.

“He just told me to keep working hard and enjoy it. I think the day Emile made his debut, was the day I was born, so that was a crazy, crazy story.

“He was really good for me. He’s a top player and to learn off him and Eidur Gudjohnson was there at the time, so I had really good at attacking players to look up to and play with so I was lucky.”

Unfortunately, a dislocated shoulder the following month ended his season prematurely – finishing the campaign with an incredible six goals in 10 games.

Another injury in his other shoulder derailed his initial comeback, but following his return, Clough was back in business and picked up right where he left off, and clubs began tacking notice.

After he eventually moved away from home and joined Nottingham, things began to change.

Despite a bright start that saw him score four goals in 14 games, Clough only played another 17 times in four seasons at Forest and went back on loan to Bolton and then to Rochdale in the years that followed.

During his time there, he struck up a friendship with Mariners and Socceroos striker Jason Cummings – who joined the club a few months after Clough did in June 2017 from Scottish side Hibernian – but also had an ill-fated spell at the club.


“We had a good few years together,” he said.

“We became really good friends, and we played golf a lot, we shared hotel rooms when we were both leaving Forest because we didn’t have a permanent place to live, so we lived together for a while.

“We are really good friends off the pitch. I can’t say he’s very good at golf. He tries his best, so I beat him a lot.

“When we are on the pitch, we have a laugh, we banter each other, but it’s all friendly.”

By coincidence, the duo ended up signing for Central Coast and Adelaide at around the same time and will go head-to-head again this weekend in the Semi Final second leg.

“Once he signed here, I didn’t hear much about it, to be honest,” he said.

“When he was at Forest a few years earlier, he had a few opportunities to come here because he had the Australian passport too so I think clubs were always looking to try and pull him out here.

“But I think once the time was right, he came and the time was right for me as well. I had a few opportunities to come in the past but yeah, we were both really excited about coming here.”

Clough’s Forest contract was mutually terminated in January 2021. He didn’t play a single game for the senior team after January 2018.

Clough spent those final three years either training or playing with the youth team, out on loan while losing match fitness and confidence, and picking up niggles along the journey.

Remarkably, seven different Forest coaches came and went during his four-year stay, with more than half of them – Simon Ireland, Martin O’Neill, Sabri Lamouchi and Chris Houghton – never giving him a chance in a competitive senior fixture.

With his career in desperate need of a restart, Clough landed at Wigan, the same club he faced in his debut who were now in the midst of their own financial struggles and quite simply needing players.

The Latics went into administration in mid-2020 after only changing ownership a month prior to the announcement. They became the first English club to go bankrupt as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and made headlines across the world for the situation surrounding their insolvency.

Wigan were slapped with a 12-point deduction and relegated from the Championship.

A club fundraising effort helped keep the Latics afloat and administrators continued to hunt for a new owner as Wigan plied their trade in League One with a team full of players mainly on short-term contracts and loan deals.

One of those was Clough, who sought to get his career back on track at a time where the club was not only battling for survival off the field but also on it, as they were gridlocked in a League One relegation scrap.

Clough only looks back on this experience fondly. Finally, he was back to doing what he loved -playing football – even if he only made 13 appearances and most of those as a substitute.

“It was brilliant for me to finally get out of Forest after such a long time and not playing for such a long period,” he said.

“It was good for me to get back involved in the first team environment, get fit. The manager there, Leam (Richardson) was really good for me. I probably wasn’t fit enough to play every game, especially in a battle at the bottom of the league.

“I didn’t start that many (games) because of probably fitness and sharpness that I bought at that time, I needed to just get back out there, we had a really good group there. We got the job done in the end, under really difficult circumstances but yeah, I really I did enjoy it.”

Clough felt his experiences when Bolton were struggling financially helped him during his stint at Wigan, saying he wasn’t “too worried” about what was transpiring off the field.

“I think you’ve got to forget about the situation because for me, I had the same situation at Bolton a few years before and we didn’t get paid for two months and I was only 19, 20,” he said.

“I knew that you’ve just got to focus on the football and not worry about that side of things and that’s what the group did really well, but I had a past experience, so I wasn’t too worried about it.”

And although he joined the enemy in the eyes of the fans who adored him during his two stints at the club, Bolton still holds a special place in his heart.

“I think on my Instagram there’s quite a lot of fans commenting pictures of snakes,” he said.

“I wasn’t really blessed with lots of options because I hadn’t played lots of football and Wigan was probably the best club in the right situation for me.

“They had good players, it wasn’t in the best situation (off-field) and it was a good group to go into for me and a good club close to home as well.

“I love Bolton. I like Wigan as well, but Bolton will always be the number one club for me.”

The club eventually found new owners with Bahraini based consortium Phoenix 2021 Ltd buying the club in March 2021 and helping them to promotion the following season to the Championship.

However, Wigan again find themselves in a similar situation. The Latics were docked t recently three points by the EFL for late player payments – which happened five times this season – and they were eventually relegated back to League One.

Wigan’s immediate future is safe after the owners paid a substantial fee to keep the club afloat and ensure all players and staff wages were remunerated.

Clough said he’s kept abreast to what’s going on at the Lancashire based club and has stayed in touch with captain Tendayi Darikwa, who he played with at Nottingham before reuniting at the the ‘Tics in 2021.

“He’s (Darikwa) been really good for the club,” he said.

“I think he’s helped all the players get through it, being the captain and I feel like they may have stayed up if everything was fine off the pitch.”

After leaving Wigan, Clough joined League Two side Carlisle United on another short term deal, before landing at Adelaide in January 2022 – where he’s gone on to become a regular in the Reds’ high-powered front-line alongside the likes of Craig Goodwin and Ben Halloran.

His 1,211 minutes this regular season is the most he’s played since the 2016/17 campaign, the same year his career changed forever as he swapped Bolton white for Nottingham red.

The Englishman has battled injuries as of late, but recently returned to the XI for the Semi Final first leg, where his side fell to a 2-1 defeat on their home deck.

Image: Adelaide United

Adelaide have a big hill to climb this weekend, needing to win away in Gosford to lock in a Grand Final berth for the first time since 2016.

Clough was part of the team that fell agonisingly short to Melbourne City last season, scoring an incredible go-ahead goal in the second leg at AAMI Park, before the premiers turned it around to win 2-1.

He and his teammates are determined to go one step further this time around.


“I’m really excited, to be honest. Since the game on Saturday, it’s been hard to think about anything else but the next game and travelling over to Sydney and trying to get the job done,” he said.

“We know we’re going there a goal behind, but I don’t think it changes us too much because we still need to go there and win regardless.”

Although that famous moment on Bolton’s home turf all the way back in January 2015 holds a special place in his heart, he believes scoring this weekend would rival it, especially if it takes Adelaide back to the promised land.

“If I could score against Central Coast, I think that would be right up there this weekend,” he said.

“It’d be nice to go and score this weekend in the Semi Final and help us get get into a Grand Final.”