Though some credit is due for rescuing a point, something which looked practically impossible at 3-0 down with 43 minutes on the clock, the fact they found themselves in such a desperate position in the first place cannot be ignored.
Ian Evatt’s side is certainly capable of playing the kind of expansive football for which he became synonymous during his time down the road with Carlisle’s Cumbrian rivals, Barrow. But there is a time and a place for such extravagance, and this was neither.
Battered by the winds and rain of Storm Bella, Brunton Park’s brooding old-fashioned stands looked more inhospitable than ever. And not for the first time this season, Wanderers struggled instantly to adapt, conceding twice in the first seven minutes, and making the rest of the afternoon a salvage operation.
Carlisle’s approach was hardly nuanced. Though players like Omari Patrick, Lewis Alessandra and Joe Riley looked handy, at no stage did you feel that Bolton were being crushed by a side obviously destined for League One.
Taking nothing away from the home side, who exploited every conceivable weakness in the Wanderers back line during the first half, it is a worrying sign indeed that they managed to do so with such a basic strategy. Make no mistake, the rest of the division is taking notes, Bolton can be bullied.
Evatt clearly recognises this issue. And the addition of some muscle to his attacking ranks – currently comprised of slender, diminutive technicians – is surely a primary objective in January.
Whomever is to blame for the hit-and-miss recruitment of the summer, the emphasis next month must be on bringing in players with some proven quality and experience. Wanderers cannot afford to gamble on the untested, nor allow much time for new signings to settle. The demand is for this side to start winning games consistently, and quickly.
Furthermore, Evatt has to be able to alter his own approach to games such as this. When expansive football cannot possibly be played, he needs the tools to be able to mix things up. Whether he is willing to compromise on his own deep-rooted footballing principles is another matter altogether.
This wet and wild Boxing Day afternoon was enough to make you yearn for a nice warm house and some turkey leftovers – but given the year we have had, not a soul wrapped up and socially distanced in the stands would have changed it for the world.
The city of Carlisle is lucky enough to be in tier two, and its club has now welcomed fans on a few occasions. Regardless of the weather, this was as close to a footballing atmosphere as Bolton have played in for several months, and it most certainly made you year for the days when the turnstiles can click again at the UniBol.
Quite what the Wanderers patrons would have made of the opening exchanges is anyone’s guess.
Callum Guy’s fifth minute free kick was propelled into the box by the wind and though Matt Gilks came out to try and relieve some pressure on defenders, he was left grasping thin air as Aaron Hayden barged in front to guide the ball over the line.
It got worse just two minutes later. Another set piece for Guy on the right edge of the penalty box was played neatly to the near post where Alessandra snuck between three sleeping Bolton defenders for the second goal of the day.
The Carlisle fans reminded ex-Barrow alumni Evatt that his side was being embarrassed. And for some reason Wanderers continued to try and play their way out of trouble.
George Thomason, Ricardo Santos and even the normally dependable Andy Tutte were guilty of silly mistakes on the edge of their own box, opting for intricacy when a clubbing clearance would have sufficed.
Alessandra missed a big chance to make it three, and moments later Bolton were denied a penalty when Thomason was sent sprawling by Jack Armer. Referee Ross Joyce eventually booked Evatt for his protests – the first of a wholly unnecessary nine bookings he issued on the day.
Even knowing the wind would be against them in the second half, Carlisle must have felt home and dry when Patrick placed the third goal of the day past Gilks, following an error from Alex Baptiste.
Before half time, however, Bolton gave themselves a glimmer of hope. Kioso’s deep cross was headed in by Thomason for his first professional goal. The boisterous goading of Evatt suddenly went silent and had Nathan Delfouneso converted one of a couple of half-chances which fell his way immediately afterwards, the mood around the ground would have been quite different.
In the event, only the most pessimistic home fans could have doubted that three points were already in the bag.
Evatt brought on Lloyd Isgrove for the second half in place of Baptiste, who had looked completely maxed out for 45 minutes. Kioso was switched to right-sided centre half but, such was his energy in the second half, looked to be filling two positions.
The returning Andy Tutte started to knit midfield together and for a 10-minute spell Bolton upped their game. Antoni Sarcevic had a couple of efforts at goal, Eoin Doyle finally got a touch of the ball and there was another penalty appeal for a trip on Thomason, to no avail.
But then, nothing. Kioso was booked for a superb challenge on halfway – later living to regret it – and the home side started to look comfortable, despite playing into the fierce wind.
Alessandra brushed the bar with a dipping volley, Riley also went close and the wily Kayode nearly provided a fourth with a great move he started on halfway.
Back home in Bolton, social media was already frothing with rage, the battle for likes and re-tweets well underway.
Closer Hadrian’s Wall, the home side’s defences were about to crumble spectacularly.
It began, oddly, with a fine save by Gilks to deny the on-rushing Kayode. Play was switched to the right where Isgrove combined with Sarcevic, and his cross was tapped in by Nathan Delfouneso.
“Oh!” bemoaned the home fans in disappointment, whose gaze then started to shift anxiously towards the illuminated scoreboard at the away end.
Two minutes later and Bolton were level. Isgrove’s corner was cleared up, rather than away, and the winger chipped in another cross for Kioso to head home.
Just as they had done at Barrow, Wanderers had rescued something out of nothing. And this time they had time to win it outright.
Doyle, who had to drop deeper in the second half to get any semblance of possession, had done as much as anyone to get the Whites going. His one-two with Thomason then opened things up for the youngster to steal the show. His shot, alas, bounced off the outside of the post.
Ref Joyce then gave Kioso a second yellow, nonsensical in the circumstances. The wing-back will now miss Tuesday night’s game against Morecambe.
With the last kick of the game, Mellish somehow fashioned a shot which also bounced off the woodwork, a fittingly frantic end to a game which was hard to categorise.
Comeback or not, Bolton cannot afford to gift goals in the manner they did at Brunton Park and expect to be competing in top seven.
Another certainty is that Evatt has to find a plan to cope with the more physical sides in League Two. Good intentions or not, persisting with possession football in this brutal arena was as pointless as playing Beethoven’s Fifth in the middle of Silverstone during the British GP.
Evatt and Wanderers must find a way to streamline, to simplify, because claiming the high moral ground won’t wash if this club continues to mill around in mid-table.
Can Bolton get low down and dirty with the rest of them on days like this? We will wait and see.
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