Bolton folk trudged into a rainy Lancashire evening disappointed – for there were elements of the performance which could certainly have been improved – but ultimately realistic of where the club is, and where is has come from.
The ‘Impossible Dream’ that Keith Hill pushed so energetically on his arrival five months ago is now starting to feel like it is out of reach, yet few who lived through the last few years of chaos at Wanderers will see relegation as anything other than a temporary inconvenience.
All of which made Hill’s post-match summary, which included the assertion that “nobody is on the same page whether it’s the press, the football club, whether it’s the staff, the players or the academy at this moment in time,” all the more surprising.
We know by now that the manager wears his heart on his sleeve. He is also a difficult man to second guess and that quality has been a largely endearing one to date.
Analysis of his post-match press interview with local radio and newspapers may be redundant. A man blowing off steam after a defeat against his former club, lashing out at undefined targets over indeterminate topics.
One might say the chat, based as it was in the kitman’s room at Spotland, was rather ironic given the dirty laundry being aired.
But if Hill’s grievances are rooted in fact, and there are factions who fail to grasp the financial climate in which he is working, then let this be a reminder. Wanderers are not working on the budget they had in League One in 2016/17 – one which proved too hot for Ken Anderson to handle in the end.
The manager asked not to be compared to Phil Parkinson, nor Sam Allardyce, which is fair comment. Both men were operating under different pressures, with different factors at play.
Something Hill cannot escape, however, is the history which comes as part of the package in this grand old club. From the glorious statue of Nat Lofthouse which stands proudly outside the stadium to the name on the Eddie Davies Academy, echoes of the past are everywhere in Bolton.
As a proud Boltonian it is difficult to see Hill rallying against such things in the same way Dougie Freedman once did. To even consider it would be a huge mistake.
Right here, right now, Bolton are a club in recovery and the expectation on Hill this season is nothing other than to continue that healing process. If it ends up with League Two football there will be disappointed people, of course, but the vast majority will know there is a much bigger picture.
There will be opinion along the way. This club was starved of football-talk for so long the supporters have leapt on the chance to discuss tactics, signings and performances. Here at Rochdale there was reason for optimism during an excellent 20-minute spell in the second half as new loan signing Hamilton took the game by the scruff of the neck.
Fellow debutant Nsiala had looked steady, Josh Emmanuel attacked with pace down the right and Adam Chicksen – playing perhaps his last game for the club – gave everything for the cause.
Rochdale, as we have now found out on no fewer than four occasions this season, can be a pretty clinical bunch when they want to be.
Hill made several changes to the starting line-up, bringing Liam Edwards in for his first start since August in a role just in front of central defensive pair Nsiala and Yoan Zouma.
Wanderers had the best chance of the opening half hour as Daryl Murphy’s knock down was volleyed towards goal by Hamilton, wrong-footing the keeper, and bouncing off the woodwork.
Although Zouma made hearts flutter with a poor header which nearly presented a gift to Rochdale's ace goal-getter Henderson, the new defence looked fairly stable.
Hill will have been pretty pleased going into the break but then a surge from his former young charge Matheson, who burst past Ronan Darcy and Liam Edwards on the edge of the box before ramming a right-footed shot into the net, made the team-talk a very different one indeed.
Wanderers looked capable of drawing level as the rain started to tip down from the dark skies above. Hamilton drove another effort on to the crossbar before Darcy missed a volley right in front of goal.
Hamilton’s duel with keeper Sanchez continued, the Rochdale man palming shots away in the bottom left and right corners with impressive agility.
Rochdale wrestled back a bit of control, forcing Hill to react from the subs’ bench. Wanderers actually had a corner when 6ft 5ins striker Muahammad Faal came on to the pitch but sadly there would be no fairy-tale debut and the former Enfield man struggled to properly impose himself on the game.
Sensing they needed to end all resistance, Brian Barry-Murphy’s side went for the jugular. Ryan surged past a couple of powderpuff challenges in midfield and drove a shot which flicked off Yoan Zouma and into the bottom corner, Matthews totally helpless.
Chris O’Grady added to Bolton’s attacking muscle but there was no way back into the game, and a steady stream of Wanderers fans began to drift out of the stadium with a few minutes left on the clock.
There were grumbles. There are always grumbles after a defeat. But there are no visible shows of dissent against the manager, his plans, or the club’s league position. Quite the opposite – Wanderers’ followers deserve an award for patience after following their team around the country in this most fragmented of seasons.
It is preferable to think that Hill’s post-match words were born out of frustration. And given the task of trying to refresh his squad under a transfer embargo, many would understand his feelings.
It was noticeable that his demeanour changed entirely by the time he faced the club’s cameras a few minutes later, so perhaps it had a cathartic effect?
No team has ever clawed back the kind of deficit that the Whites are facing in League One. There is a good reason they called it the ‘Impossible Dream’ and not the 'Easily-achievable one'. So if the next four months are about laying foundations for next season, then so be it.
Now is not the time for drama. We have had plenty enough of that at Bolton Wanderers.