Never before in the storied existence of Bolton Wanderers have emotions lurched so violently from despair to unbridled joy, as they did on Sunday afternoon.
Seemingly dead and buried with 10 minutes to go and facing relegation straight back to League One, this plucky team that just won’t quit completed a comeback of such astonishing proportion, it is unlikely to have sunk in by the time we kick off again – in this division – in August.
A club given a 1,500/1 chance of staying up in October, one who hasn’t spent a single penny on transfers in three years, and which has dragged itself from the very edge of the financial abyss, showed in 10 minutes why we love it so much.
No Hollywood writer could have come up with a script this fanciful. Aaron Wilbraham, a 38-year-old striker often castigated by his own supporters and a shock inclusion in the team at Adam Le Fondre’s expense, somehow finished 90 minutes with his name etched permanently in the history books.
Parkinson’s gamble to launch the veteran into a game of this importance was the stuff of comic books. But no happy ending was in sight when Ben Osborn and Jack Colback put Forest 2-1 up with 11 minutes to go.
For the briefest moment, survival had been in Bolton’s grasp. Le Fondre came off the bench and with typical swagger bagged himself a goal. Yet the celebrations were cut short, and with curses of ‘typical Wanderers’ fans filed out of the ground as Colback’s goal hit the back of the net.
No-one could have foreseen what was to come. Le Fondre – a hero if ever Wanderers had one – teed up David Wheater for a goal three minutes from the end to reignite hope around the stadium, where before there had been emptiness.
And less than 60 seconds later it was utter delirium. Wilbraham stooped in to head home from six inches off the turf – by far his most difficult chance of the day – to trigger the kind of guttural roar that will live with you forever.
Defeats against Burton, Birmingham, Millwall and Wolves had cut deep. Even the most optimistic of us had found their faith tested, if not obliterated completely.
For so long you found yourself asking the question: “Where was this passion at the Pirelli Stadium?”
Yes, Wanderers left gaps and rode their luck at times. Forest hit the bar, and had Ben Brereton’s radar been accurate, hope would have been buried by half time. But the fire and passion we have ached to see from the team was also there in bucket-loads.
Josh Vela fought for the club he has represented since the age of seven. David Wheater and Mark Beevers defended with the kind of steeliness we have missed so much. Fil Morais delivered when it mattered most.
Parkinson’s biggest attacking concession had been to include Mark Little and Antonee Robinson in the full-back positions for only the second time in 13 games. Both defied the blazing heat to roar up and down the line, while experienced pair Darren Pratley and Karl Henry snapped at heels in front of the back four.
We also saw a welcome return to form for Sammy Ameobi, who showed for the ball when he team needed an outlet and tracked back to cover the attack-minded Tendayi Darikwa.
Even Ben Alnwick’s first-half injury – which saw him substituted at the break for Mark Howard – failed to dent Wanderers’ momentum. It felt entirely appropriate when Le Fondre, fresh on as a sub, pounced to volley home from eight yards after Henry’s shot had been blocked.
Barnsley trailed, Burton were being held by 10-man Preston. The strains of the Great Escape were drifting off the terraces. All was right with the world.
But as 2pm struck, Osborn drove an angled shot from 20 yards which skipped up over Howard and into the bottom corner, creating an eerie hush.
Nine minutes later Osborn wriggled past Mark Little near the corner flag and pulled a pass back for Colback to slam home. It seemed like a punctuation point on the season. Surely, there was no escape from here?
The game drifted dream-like for 10 minutes. We lined up our criticism – was the team attacking enough? Should Gary Madine have been replaced? Was recruitment in January sufficient?
Then, with one waft of Wheater’s right foot we had a prayer. Anyone who did turn on their heels to leave the ground after Forest’s second will be disappointed they missed out.
Wanderers smelled a second. Once again Le Fondre was the coolest head in the building, pulling a cross back for Wilbraham to head home.