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Bolton Nuts » BWFC » Bolton Wanderers Banter » THE BIG-MATCH VERDICT: Bolton 3-0 Southend

THE BIG-MATCH VERDICT: Bolton 3-0 Southend

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse

It is exciting to think as Wanderers moved on to the fringes of the play-off picture that they remain nowhere near the finished article.

Not since Phil Parkinson’s side claimed promotion from League One in 2017 has a Bolton team won five competitive games on the spin, nor a league fixture by a three-goal margin.

That Ian Evatt’s current incarnation has done so with so much to spare is an intriguing thought, especially with a January transfer window looming on the horizon.

Wanderers sussed out a path to comfortable victory against Southend, trusting in the patient, probing style of football Evatt is trying to gradually graft on his group. It was by no means perfect but the flashes of success that were once limited to one or two bursts per game are now being chunked together into periods of sustained pressure, leaving lesser lights unable to cope.

It has taken a third of the season to get to this stage. A winning November has been aided by Evatt being able to name a settled line-up, and while questions still hang over the depth of his extended squad, it is hugely encouraging to see the main components of this team are now sparking into form.

Much has been said about Matt Gilks’ introduction in goal and the stabilising effect he has had on the back three. Defensively, Wanderers were solid once again on Saturday afternoon but this time it was not the hulking Ricardo Santos, nor the veteran stopper Gilks who necessarily caught the eye, it was the venerable man to their right.

Archetypal good professional Alex Baptiste has carved out a distinguished career away from the limelight, amassing more than 500 games in all four divisions.

But you wonder during the last 18 years how many times his pre-match appearance has been scrutinised in quite the same way as it was after the cameras caught him walking into the stadium clutching a box of Diarolyte and looking – to the casual laptop observer at least - a little worse for wear.

Thanks to Evatt’s post-match explanation we now know the 34-year-old regularly uses the dehydration remedy to stop muscle cramps during a game. And any fears he was feeling below par were blown away by a fine performance.

While Peter Kioso’s attacking instincts on the right are often hard to miss, it was only when Baptiste strode forward to join him that Southend were compromised, and the defender provided two sublime crosses to tee up goals in each half for Nathan Delfouneso and Eoin Doyle.

Wanderers are now figuring out how to unpick sides in such a manner. Until Delfouneso headed home in first-half injury time the game had hung uneasily in the balance, with the Whites unable to turn their superior possession into a meaningful lead.

Andrew Tutte had limped off after just 11 minutes and his replacement Tom White took some time to restore the defensive balance in midfield, succeeding only in the final third of the game.

Ali Crawford had a frustrating afternoon. So often the key link in the possession chain, the Scot lacked a little bite on the ball and so Wanderers lapsed into old habits. Too often in the first 45 minutes possession sloshed from side to side, never threatening to break the Southend block.

The Whites broke through on rare occasions. Captain, Antoni Sarcevic, went closest to breaking the deadlock, losing his balance at the crucial moment to scoop a shot over the bar from close range after initially weaving his way past three men in the penalty box.

Southend have taken just five points this season and recently been decimated by unavailability caused by coronavirus. Manager Mark Mosleley can take some heart, though, in the fact his young side were nowhere near as outclassed as the scoreline might suggest.

Had Gilks not made a good save from Brandon Goodship midway through the first half the Blues may have had something to protect. Instead, their deep block had to be relaxed when Bolton seized the lead, making them more vulnerable in the second half.

Wanderers withstood a spell of pressure after the break before doubling their lead from the penalty spot. Replays show Jon White was rather harshly penalised for a trip on Doyle but the Irishman was not about to look a gift horse in the mouth, picking up the ball to drive home his fifth of the campaign.

Before the end Doyle made it 100 goals in English football, converting another smart cross from Baptiste to draw level with strike partner Delfouneso in the scoring stakes.

You simply cannot bet against him adding more in the coming months. Wanderers have finally began playing to his strengths whilst simultaneously making big improvements at the back, a heady mix indeed.

Doyle’s qualities are also coming to the fore. His running off the ball is clever and is opening up gaps for the likes of Sarcevic and Ali Crawford but, more importantly, that killer instinct which made him the most lethal marksman in the division last season is with him once again.

Once they were 3-0 up Evatt was finally able to take advantage of the new substitution rules and give some of his players a deserved rest. The next step in their evolution as a side is to feel comfortably in control of the game at 2-0, and not relying wholly on hard graft to keep opponents at bay.

How they deal with Tutte’s absence could be important. White still has something to prove since returning from injury, and another late replacement, Brandon Comley, has even more repair work on his hands. Ronan Darcy has yet to be given full blessing at first team level by Evatt and untested youngsters Regan Riley and George Thomason may be even more of a gamble at this stage. What the Bolton boss decides for next weekend’s game against Port Vale will be very interesting indeed.

Everywhere you look at Bolton there is learning going on. The team is evolving – and whether that has come a little too late to realise their promotion billing, only time will tell.

Evatt looks so much more comfortable in his role too, without the relentless pressure which accompanied that early season poor form. As a young manager he perhaps inflated expectation levels above where they needed to be on his arrival, and he may also reflect that the change of goalkeeper came slightly later than it should have done.

But how thrilling to be on this journey?

Even the fans – forced to watch events from screens rather than stands – are learning to appreciate the nuances of a completely new brand of football. New favourites are being forged and celebrated on social media, and people are finally enjoying Bolton Wanderers once again. Heaven knows how good that will be when they are allowed to do so in person.

Mistakes have been made; more mistakes will be made. But this club of strangers are now starting to gel into something familiar, and a team people can actually get behind. Long may that continue.

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