There was no footballing feast on offer at the UniBol as Keith Hill’s side scrambled for victory against a team which looks on its last legs in League One.
In keeping with the time of year there were pantomime boos from home fans as passes went astray and clearances ended up in the stands, particularly in a dire first half-hour when Wanderers threatened to turn their post-match Christmas party into a wake.
The frustration was entirely justified. Southend were gift-wrapped an opening goal but struggled after its scorer, Harry Lennon, was stretchered off with a broken leg. From there, Bolton ground Southend down to lead 2-1 at the break thanks to two smart volleys from Joe Dodoo and Luke Murphy.
The theme of dreadful defending continued into the second half as Daryl Murphy extended the Whites’ lead – and just as the game looked beyond doubt, more slack marking at a set piece allowed Tim Dieng to set up a tense final 10 minutes with another soft goal.
If Wanderers offer such charity to Phil Parkinson’s Sunderland in a couple of days, it will be a long drive back. But let’s give Hill’s men the benefit of some seasonal generosity and commend the fact they had the gumption to turn a game around after going a goal down – something which hadn’t been done in the previous 1,008 days.
Not since Adam Le Fondre and Fil Morais snatched victory from the jaws of defeat against Northampton Town in March 2017 had a Bolton team flipped their fortunes in such a way. So while this was hardly a masterclass to cheer the masses, it may elude to this group of players developing the sort of mentality they are going to need if they are to avoid the drop in the New Year.
It wasn’t all bad. Thibaud Verlinden’s much-vaunted return to the starting line-up paid dividends in the end. After a rather anonymous opening half and hour the Belgian began to look more dangerous on the ball, also chasing back to show Hill and Dave Flitcroft’s message may have started to sink in.
Ronan Darcy continues to look comfortable at this level. The fans have warmed to his enthusiasm on the ball and when subtlety is required, his technical ability is up there with the best in the squad right now.
Dad-to-be Luke Murphy capped off what should be a celebratory weekend with a fine left-footed volley to double his tally for the season. If the former Leeds United man can inch himself forward a little more, his CV shows there is plenty more where that came from.
And Josh Earl was the pick of a back four which did not shine particularly brightly on the day. The Preston North End defender was moved out to left-back to replace the out-of-form Adam Chicksen and though he was beaten for the opening goal, he recovered well.
The chief talking point of Hill’s line-up was that Liam Bridcutt was named as a centre-back alongside Jake Wright. Opinion is polarised as to whether the on-loan Nottingham Forest man’s talents on the ball are wasted at the back but stats from the game hardly add weight on either side of the argument.
At around 5ft 7ins, Bridcutt does not seem the obvious physical candidate for the position. Yet he won more aerial challenges than anyone in a Bolton shirt, aside from target man Daryl Murphy.
Equally, a poor 47 per cent pass success rate on the day was out of line with a player who is usually more compact in possession.
Both Bridcutt and Jason Lowe have regularly been tasked with ‘doing jobs for the team’ and with a squad lacking depth, it is hardly surprising. But with Liam Edwards making a return from injury on the bench, it may not be long before Hill has another option in his back line.
Southend’s season has been a poor one to date, and the Essex club do not have nearly as many extenuating circumstances as Wanderers for their lowly league position.
They stumbled into the lead, Lennon heading home from four yards virtually unchallenged after Sam Mantom’s corner. Wanderers’ worrying frailty at set pieces another potential weak spot to be addressed before they get to the Stadium of Light.
Sol Campbell protested there had been a handball as Dodoo volleyed his side level on 36 minutes. Replays showed he may have a point – the Bolton striker latching on to Jake Wright’s knockdown from Liam Bridcutt’s lofted free-kick and lashing the ball past Nathan Bishop.
The former England international and his coach Andy Cole were none too impressed with the officials after Murphy volleyed the second, too.
Linesman Abbas Khan definitely put his flag up in the build-up, presumably for offside against either Darcy or Verlinden, but several passes later the ball was in the back of the net. Campbell was booked for his histrionics.
After Darcy switched play for Verlinden, Earl’s deflected cross was brought down well by Murphy, who later claimed he had “swung a left foot” to send the ball bobbling into the bottom corner. Methinks he is selling himself a little short, there.
Wanderers controlled the second half without creating anything especially clear-cut. In the end they got a helping hand – last-man Dieng stumbling as he tried to control Rob Kiernan’s pass, allowing Daryl Murphy to saunter through and lift the ball over Bishop for his sixth goal in seven league games.
The big Irishman is delightfully no-frills. He has attracted some unwanted publicity recently but seems to revel in going to work, shoulder to the grindstone.
The game should have ended there. Wanderers must get smarter, and quick, to see out the last half an hour of a contest like this without incident. Instead, the nervousness started to seep in again and when Dieng out-muscled Jason Lowe to head a second, the closing stages were far more nervous than they had any right to be.
Thankfully, Remi Matthews had composed himself. The Bolton keeper did not do himself any favours with a few daft choices early in the game and may well be suffering for a lack of senior competition, with Ben Alnwick still absent. But his confidence to continually collect the raft of late crosses being ploughed into the box in the final minutes was vital.
Wanderers have been vulnerable on their travels, so if grinding out this victory gives them a psychological boost heading to Wearside it could be a very handy Christmas present indeed.
If Parkinson proved anything in his early days at Bolton, it is that set pieces are high on his list of priorities.
The Black Cats will be expected to get one over on his old club – but Keith Hill won’t want to get undone by the basics, and it is a safe bet that defensive drills will be heavily schooled in the next few days.