There was no denying frustration was in the air as injury time ticked down on Saturday evening. Each lateral pass was accompanied with an audible groan, the murmurs of discontent building towards an inevitable crescendo at the final whistle.
Wimbledon had twice been gifted a lead and there was no question those errors were on course to be the topic of conversation through the weekend, and not Daryl Murphy’s superbly taken header which restored parity just after half time.
And then it happened. Bolton’s patient build-up paid off, Thibaud Verlinden’s cross was nodded home by Joe Dodoo and the entire narrative was changed in an instant. The crescendo never arrived and to use the old footballing cliché, Wanderers had a draw which felt more like a victory.
Whether the undercurrent of grumbling – which was present for much of the second half – was entirely warranted is up for debate. This, after all, is still a team in its infancy and one patched-up with teenagers Ronan Darcy and Sonny Graham after the loss of Luke Murphy and Liam Bridcutt to injury.
No wonder that Keith Hill appeared for the post-match press conference intent on delivering a plea for patience, rather than discussing the late snatched point.
“I am asking everything of the group of players and they make mistakes, and when they do they need support,” he said. “Sonny (Graham) made a mistake and it led to a goal but that’s not the end of the game. We made a mistake from a set play for the second but the players’ courage is still there.
“We are not going to win League One just by magic. I’m getting so much support from Football Ventures but neither they nor myself should be blamed for what has happened in the past.”
Hill has a point. Had he been able to draw on a full squad during his 100 days in charge, there may be room to moan at the fact Wanderers were 2-1 down at home against a relegation rival. As it stood on Saturday, the Bolton boss did not even have enough players with first team experience to fill his bench and is missing an immense number of experienced operators through injury.
The team is currently picked more often with a head count than any great tactical forethought, which means Football Ventures – who were watching from the stands alongside their investors – have some big decision to make next month.
Wanderers are handcuffed by the transfer embargo and will be for some time to come. While the prospect of making several signings probably appeals to the manager, the terms of said embargo restrict him to a certain number of professional contracts who are allowed to take the field – at last count, 23.
While former owner Ken Anderson ran roughshod over the rulebook, exploiting several loopholes in the club’s last stay in League One, it is safe to say the embargo he left behind as his legacy is being more stringently enforced.
Hill and Co are indeed paying for the sins of the past, and the squad’s apparent inability to avoid injury is another by-product of the haste at which it was created.
But all of that said, there is an inherent expectation at Bolton, and always has been at this level of the game. Yes, there has been a decade of underperformance at this club, and very recent neglect, but it doesn’t make those glorious Premier League memories any easier to supress. If Wanderers can bring in two or three versatile types next month in the loan market and keep the majority of their players fit, there is still a shot of survival. In the meantime, the club is looking for inspiration from within, and may have found it in the slender form of Ronan Darcy.
There has never been any doubt about Darcy’s technical ability, and it is little wonder clubs higher up the league have kept tabs on his progress. It has taken until now, however, for him to convince Hill and David Flitcroft that he has the physical prowess to handle League One football.
Here, on his first start under the new boss, the academy graduate showed he might just be a suitable replacement for the injured Ali Crawford and the creative source the centre of midfield has been lacking.
Wanderers’ success could also rest on the broad shoulders of Daryl Murphy, the battle-hardened Irish striker now starting to pick up the good habit of scoring goals regardless of how well he plays.
Bolton were trailing to Marcus Forss’ first-half strike, conceded on the break after Graham’s loose pass wrong-footed Jake Wright.
Wimbledon had not looked entirely comfortable when crosses came into the box but it was only with the half-time arrival of Thibaud Verlinden that they did so with regularity.
Darcy had also been put on set piece duty, his delivery excellent on the day. And it was from his corner that Murphy powered a perfect headed equaliser on 56 minutes.
That should have given Wanderers a platform to push forward for a winner, and though Verlinden always looked a threat with ball at feet, the longer the scores stayed level, the more frayed nerves became.
Suddenly, misplaced or mis-controlled passes were drawing groans of dissatisfaction, capped nine minutes from time by Forss’ second strike of the day.
A free kick was swung in from the right by Max Sanders and though Matthews did well to block Forss’ initial effort, nobody reacted in the Bolton back four and he was given a second bite of the cherry, burying his shot into the bottom corner.
The Dons looked to have managed the game perfectly from there on in, wasting every moment of time they could. That policy might just have caught up with them in the end, when after fourth official Ian Smedley showed four minutes of added time, the extra 60 seconds added by ref Marc Edwards proved crucial.
Verlinden’s pin-point delivery, Dodoo’s determination to get in off the opposite wing and into the six-yard box, and Wanderers had a point that felt like more.
The composure and bravery shown to get back into the game was commendable, even if the biggest take-home from 90 minutes was that Wanderers’ squad is desperately short of experience right now.
Expectations in check, there are six games left before Hill can theoretically do anything about it in what is shaping up to be one of the most important transfer windows in living memory.