Keith Hill knew his team had thrown away a result against Burton Albion on New Year’s Day and whereas he has been able to legitimise previous defeats against the state of flux he continues to operate in, this one came down to plain and simple poor defending.
The result, perhaps more than any other since he took charge at the end of August, has prompted Bolton fans to question football decisions made by the manager. And given that the discussion in 2019 seldom concerned events on pitch, there is a temptation to feel nostalgic about an old-fashioned bout of terrace complaints.
The draw at Sunderland and the second-half display with 10 men against Shrewsbury Town showed that Bolton had improved as a defensive unit, although the removal of two important components in Jason Lowe and Liam Bridcutt was hardly going to improve things.
Nevertheless, Hill’s grimace said it all against Burton, and analysis of each goal reveals mistakes.
David Templeton’s first was extremely well-taken but could Josh Emmanuel have been stronger, denying the Scot a chance to win back the ball in such an advanced position?
The second was an exercise in what happens when you don’t stop a cross – that duty falling to Luke Murphy and Wright – and then watch it bobble across your six-yard box, the protagonists here being Adam Chicksen and Josh Earl.
Wright’s off-day continued as he was turned all-too-easily by Lucas Akins for Burton’s third, and the same thing happened again in the second half when Liam Boyce came off the bench to score the fourth. A mention in despatches must also go to the three fatigued Bolton players who jogged alongside John Brayford as he surged into the final third to claim an assist.
That point made, Hill’s reluctance to go overboard with the criticism was understandable given he is dealing with a shallow pool of players who need to stay motivated for the 23 games to come.
“I am happy with certain aspects of the performance and when you take the emotion out of it, you have to be clinical,” he said after the game. “I can’t complain about the standard and what the boys are giving me after going down to 10 men and not giving up.
“Again, it’s a game of decisions. I made my decisions on selection and personnel. The players have made their decisions on the pitch and it’s a game of errors.
“Our players made a lot of individual errors but I am not looking at that game and thinking ‘wow, we can’t get out and score’. We can, we’re putting the ball in the back of the net quite a lot, but defensively it comes down to what you are prepared to do legally to stop your opponent. We looked naïve, we looked leggy.
“We’ll address all that once the dust has settled and then move on to the Rochdale game.”
It may be a wise move for Hill to keep the emotions in check, for this will be a month where clear heads and considered decision-making will be important.
January is a difficult time to make sweeping changes to any squad, let alone one saddled with a restrictive embargo limiting the club to 23 professional contracts. Bolton’s task – potentially before January 11 – is to re-sign players like Chicksen or Will Buckley, whose contract is set to expire, and deal with four loan players who are set to return to their parent clubs.
Compared with the hectic 48 hours Hill and David Flitcroft were given to assemble the current squad at the end of the summer window, a whole month is comparatively easy. But Hill is determined to keep a lid on the drama.
“I don’t want to throw away what has been a good, stable life after administration. We have to realise that the club needs a lot of football blood pumping back into it,” he said.
“There has been a lot happening around the stadium, the finances are better, but the football lifeblood of any club is the players and that needs help. We need to make a big team this season and next season. This group has done well and I don’t want to base that on just one game. This is just the opening of the window and this group has done a magnificent job getting us to positive points.
“There has got to be a stability going into the remainder of the season. There’s still a lot to play for.
“We can still grab a lifeline. We have got to move on from this result in the days before we play Rochdale.”
Nowhere are Hill’s selection problems more acute than in midfield, where suspensions for Murphy and Lowe bite deep and could now provide a most unexpected window of opportunity for James Weir.
The former Manchester United man had started just once in the league under Hill, the 6-1 defeat at Rotherham in his first league game in charge. And reasonable questions were asked of his future in the squad when that appearance, plus those against Manchester City’s Under-23s and Accrington, were cut short before he jogged out for the second half.
Nevertheless, Weir was picked ahead of Sonny Graham for a starting spot against Burton, this after Hill had appealed to fans to give the academy graduate a break after some had leapt on a mistake he made in possession the previous game.
At 17, Graham is very much still learning the ropes and, crucially, is not yet on a professional contract. Weir, seven years his senior, saw out 90 minutes for the first time since the Leasing.com Trophy game against Bradford City.
Hill makes no secret of the fact he may have to lose players in January, some of which would have been kept under more normal circumstances.
“It’s a massive headache,” he said. “But what do you do? You have to keep fighting and coming up with solutions to the problems. It’s a jigsaw.
“You have to keep looking at what best fits you have in relation to your opponents and what you want to do. I thought – and still believe – was that the midfield selection was as good as we can do today. I thought there was some good stuff.
“Luke getting sent off was a big obstacle to overcome but we got energy on the pitch with Will Buckley, Dennis Politic and Chris O’Grady which provided us with a goalscoring threat.
“The fourth goal was a terrible one to concede at any level of football and I am really disappointed in that because you have to go back to basics. It’s a good adage to go back to the basics when you are defending – if the ball goes past you the player doesn’t, if the player goes past you the ball doesn’t. It’s simple but you have to stop your opponents, that is the defensive rule.”
Hill sought to put off transfer talk until the festive fixture list had been completed but now has some big decisions to make, some of them fairly soon.
The short-term future of Chicksen and Buckley appears to be the most pressing, as any potential return for Thibaud Verlinden, Liam Bridcutt, Josh Earl and Jake Wright will ultimately be down to their parent clubs – Stoke, Forest, Preston and Sheffield United, respectively.
Asked of the state of play after the final whistle against Burton, Hill provided a tantalising answer.
“We will make a decision on them,” he said. “We wanted to get the Burton game out of the way but by the time Rochdale comes along we could have a new team completely."