Believe it or not, up to the hour mark it was hard to pick a winner at a windswept LNER Stadium.
Harry Anderson’s goal separated the sides in a drab first half but when Ronan Darcy got his side level it was game on. And both sets of fans knew it.
Unfortunately, the soft centre this ever-changing squad of Wanderers has developed on their travels over the last few years shows no sign of disappearing. And once Tyler Walker put the Imps back into the lead it was all downhill.
Two goals for sub John Akinde either side of an unfortunate Remi Matthews own goal gave the scoreline a flattering look. And regardless of the criticism which will rightly come Bolton’s way for some of the defending… It was still flattering.
Wanderers have an immediate problem to solve after two left-backs, Adam Chicksen and Josh Earl, left the building in the last two weeks. Hill used no fewer than three different players at Lincoln – the sort of reshuffling which clearly cannot continue.
Liam Edwards was the first stop-gap in the first half, followed by Ethan Hamilton and Harry Brockbank after the break – and the Bolton boss may now be forced into another defensive reshuffle after Yoan Zouma failed to reappear for the second half.
The lack of a specialist certainly wasn’t singularly to blame for the defeat but you cannot help but yearn for a day when Hill will be able to name a settled back four.
Other than moving Edwards at left-back, Hill also brought Dennis Politic in for his first league start since mid-October and also restored Luke Murphy to the midfield after his one-match suspension, with Sonny Graham making way.
Wanderers’ most consistent threat throughout the first half was Joe Dodoo, who produced a couple of early crosses in the swirling wind which caused problems for the Imps back line.
Beyond that, there was very little to get excited about if you were of a Bolton persuasion. The nearest they got to goal in the first 45 minutes was via a heavy touch from ex-Whites defender Cian Bolger, which nearly let in Darcy at the very end of the half.
There had been little to complain about until the Lincoln goal. But once Harry Toffolo’s excellent cross from the left was met by the head of Anderson for his sixth goal of the campaign, it briefly threatened to turn into a deluge.
With the right-footed Edwards still acclimatising, Anderson looked hungry for a second and Remi Matthews in the Bolton goal was having one of those evenings where you just didn’t know what he was going to serve up.
One poor clearance landed at the feet of Jake Hesketh, who wasted the opportunity to lift the ball back over his head and into the empty net. Moments later the keeper tipped over a whipped free kick from Jorge Grant.
Matthews then enthralled the Bolton fans behind his goal with a Cruyff turn to beat another ex-Bolton man, Tyler Walker, although whether Hill and David Flitcroft shared in their delight is another matter altogether.
On a night in which the wind swirled around the LNER Stadium, it thankfully disappeared from Lincoln’s sails by the time the interval arrived.
Luke Murphy injected some unnecessary drama into proceedings with a poor pass that gifted an opportunity to Walker on the edge of the box – but again, Matthews was equal to his stinging half-volley.
Something had to change. And though it was probably an injury to Zouma – who had gone down late in the first half clutching his thigh – which prompted Hill to send on Chris O’Grady at the break, it injected a very different feel into the game thereafter.
Bolton were level within a couple of minutes. Darcy, whose luck in front of goal just lately has been of the utterly wretched variety – seized on a chest down by Daryl Murphy on the edge of the box to blast a gorgeous shot past Vickers and send the Bolton fans into delirium.
It was the same end of the pitch, incidentally, at which Phil Brown had scored a stunner past Mike Pollitt some 27 years earlier.
Suddenly, from struggling to see how Bolton were going to get back into the game, we were considering if they could go on and win it.
Ethan Hamilton dropped into the left-back position, with Edwards moving into his more accustomed role in the middle, and the net result looked more stable.
Both sets of fans upped their game, sensing it was in the balance. Politic sent a shot whistling past the post, Toffolo – a left-back who looks like he could comfortably step up a level – put another cross into the Wanderers box which had Edwards at full stretch.
Then, as so often seems the case these days, Bolton shot themselves in the foot. Weak defending on the edge of the box left Walker with a chance to shoot at goal – and his finish was that of a young man who has improved his game since his uneventful loan spell with the Whites in 2017.
Wanderers looked capable of getting level again. Darcy’s corners were consistently dangerous, fed into a six-yard box crammed with Bolton shirts.
But then it went pear-shaped in the most spectacular way. Three goals in five minutes – one later credited to Joe Morrell that will surely go down as an own goal – left Wanderers with that all-too-familiar sinking feeling.