A glance at the League Two table would suggest such thoughts are fanciful. Ian Evatt’s unpredictable side reside closer to the relegation zone than the play-offs and chalked up another piece of unwanted history on Saturday with a third straight home defeat, a first for this club at this level of football.
But for a magnificent November there has been no consistent run of results which would convince a neutral onlooker that Bolton will be playing at a higher level of football next season.
The swaggering, expansive football which was billed in the lockdown summer has appeared in frustratingly fleeting glimpses, and rarely enough to significantly influence the outcome of a game.
Here, for example, Bolton played 25 minutes of electrifying attacking football, but not before going 1-0 down, at which point their failure to actually find the back of the net with a litany of late chances proved costly.
Back in 2016/17 Phil Parkinson’s Bolton team groaned its way to promotion.
With the backdrop of a battling boardroom and played in the manager’s stoic style, neither the team nor manager got much credit as they ground a path behind Sheffield United to the Championship.
There were moments of pure joy, of course. The Fil Morais-inspired win at Gillingham, David Wheater’s header at Port Vale, the exuberant on-pitch celebrations after beating Peterborough on the final day. But even a few years on, there are many fans who bemoan the mechanical success of Parkinson’s side who – according to some – should have romped the title by March.
What Evatt would do for such stability. It may have been tough to watch, at times, but you knew what you were going to get.
Who among the 18 names on the team-sheet against Crawley can say they have been genuinely consistent this season? Few even seem able to maintain a level of performance within the same game.
Arguably Bolton’s two best performances since August have been at Cheltenham and at home to Salford, both games where their defensive organisation shone brighter than their attacking football. And a common criticism you can level at this team is that they try too hard to win games, rather than not losing them.
Unfortunately, in this case, the Whites reserved most of their cohesive football for the final stages, when George Francomb’s well-worked goal had already put the visitors ahead.
Evatt restored Reiss Greenidge to the league line-up for only the third time this season, and in his more familiar central defensive role too, with Ryan Delaney making way. Harry Brockbank came in on the right side of the back three at Alex Baptiste’s expense and Lloyd Isgrove started as a wing-back in place of the suspended Peter Kioso.
For 20 minutes we had the standard Bolton start at home. Flecks of attacking football, half-chances for Isgrove and Nathan Delfouneso, but no breakthrough.
Only Harrogate have scored fewer goals on their own turf in the opening 30 minutes, and though Evatt’s policy has long been to move opposition around the big pitch and exploit gaps later in the game, it is fair to ask if that target is being accomplished often enough to persist?
Crawley worked their way into the game, Francomb hit the woodwork with an angled shot and Jack Powell was denied by a smart stop from Matt Gilks with his feet.
By half time the early promise had fizzled out, tribute in part to some stubborn defending from John Yems’s side, unbeaten since November and looking to move into the top six.
Crawley kept chipping away and, with rather sad inevitability, Bolton were breached. Tom Nicholls -who had been the stand-out player in the first half produced a brilliant pass for Francomb, leaving Wanderers’ defender stood like blocks of ice as the captain stroked the ball into the bottom corner.
And then, the response. While issue can be taken with Evatt’s claim that his side had dominated prior to the Crawley goal, few would dispute his statement that Bolton could have scored “six or seven” on the day.
The vast majority of those scoring chances fell in the final 25 minutes and it is for his players to answer why the pace was picked up so suddenly at that point in proceedings.
Eoin Doyle, who had hitherto spent much of his time out wide and crossing the ball to the space he longed to be, suddenly found himself front and centre when Isgrove and Brockbank pushed on.
Delfouneso, virtually a spectator since the first 20 minutes, also popped up in the sort of areas that have helped him grab seven goals this season.
Captain, Antoni Sarcevic, also flicked a switch, playing for the last quarter of the game in the swashbuckling style we desperately need to see on a more regular basis.
Doyle hit the woodwork, stretching to head Sarcevic’s cross back at goal, while veteran keeper Glenn Morris proved an impenetrable barrier, repelling close-range efforts from Doyle, Delfouneso and Gethin Jones.
The one-way traffic was so captivating, it was easy to miss that Wanderers had switched to a back four.
Evatt declined to use any of his substitutes, some of whom had produced a decidedly vanilla effort to warm-up at half time. Instead, he shifted Brockbank to right-back, Jones to left-back and pushed Isgrove and Delfouneso to the wings.
A sign of things to come, perhaps? The young manager has made mistakes, one of which has been his rigid reliance on the 3-4-1-2 system which worked so well at his previous club.
This was an interesting twist and may prove to be a necessary one if Peter Kioso has his loan spell cut short by Luton Town.
Crawley sat deep and defended their lead. Due credit has to go to the Red Devils for the way they set up a winning position, even if it was the superb work of keeper Morris which ultimately kept them there.
Greenidge’s evening was cut 60 seconds short by a second yellow card, which hardly seemed worth digging out of the pocket for referee Samuel Barrott. The big defender still has plenty to prove at this level, one of which is his ability to stay mentally and physically sharp until the bitter end.
The final whistle sounded and another round of raucous cheers went up from a visiting team. Whether it is preferable to the chorus of boos which would have been supplied by a cheesed-off home support, I am yet to decide.
What is crystal clear is that Evatt has work to do. He has the backing of the board, and the license to restructure the recruitment, scouting and coaching department to his own liking.
He potentially has 10 days with his players on the training ground before the next League Two game at Exeter, although the impending EFL Covid-19 tests could throw a potential spanner in the works in a whole manner of different ways.
Most importantly, he has the remainder of January to bring in players who can add that layer of consistency which has been desperately lacking. It is hard to think of a window that has been more crucial to a Bolton boss since, perhaps, Gary Megson assembled his Great Escape in the Premier League with riches Evatt can only dream of spending.
Of course, there is time for Wanderers to rebuild again and launch a promotion push but the probability continues to fall with each missed opportunity like this one.
This is, after all, a group which has not spent a single second in the promotion places since league places were still being decided on alphabetical order.
It is time for this squad, this manager, to live up to the hype.
[You must be registered and logged in to see this link.]