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Why the first goal has been all-important at Bolton this season

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse

Saturday's defeat against Crawley followed a well-worn narrative at Wanderers: Concede first, expect little.

Naturally, the scorer of a game’s first goal tends to stand a better chance of securing points but Bolton’s record in recent years on battling back from a losing position has been especially poor.

March 18, 2017 stood for a long time as a definitive day for Wanderers. An Adam Le Fondre penalty and a winner from Filipe Morais had helped Phil Parkinson’s side battle back from 1-0 down to claim three points.

It was not a particularly unusual case for that team – who had done similar against Walsall, Fleetwood and AFC Wimbledon earlier the same season.

But it did not happen again in the league until December 2019, when Keith Hill’s team went behind to Southend via Harry Lennon’s 10th minute goal but fought back to win 3-2, with Joe Dodoo, Luke Murphy and Daryl Murphy on the scoresheet.

Some 381 days later, a fair chunk of which was filled by lockdown, Bolton are waiting to do the same under Ian Evatt.

Wanderers are not alone in League Two in having failed to win a single game in which they have conceded first - as that distinction is also held by Mansfield, Barrow, Colchester, Carlisle, Scunthorpe, Southend and Salford.

And it is entirely fair to say they have shown some resolve along the way, leaving it late to claim a point against Barrow, Cambridge, Mansfield and Carlisle. Antoni Sarcevic scored the pivotal goal in in three of those games, with Peter Kioso following suit on Boxing Day in the crazy winds of Brunton Park.

In all, Bolton average 0.33 points after falling behind to the game’s first goal, which is better than five divisional rivals and not in itself especially remarkable.

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There may be something to take, however, from the difference between Wanderers’ reaction to falling behind at home, compared to on their travels.

At the UniBol, Evatt’s side has leaked the first goal seven times. On those occasions they have gone on to score five goals and concede 16, averaging just 0.14 points. Only relegation-threatened Grimsby can match that.

Away from home their powers of recovery appear more robust. Going on to score seven and concede 13, Bolton take an average 0.6 points from games in which they concede first.

One reason to explain the disparity could be the willingness of opposition sides to drop deep and defend their lead at the UniBol, as Crawley did on Saturday, and more tellingly, Bolton’s inability to break that down.

The big pitch should be tailor-made for the expansive football Evatt has wanted to introduce – but often the space has worked to their disadvantage, leaving their passing game moving laterally and seeming passive.

Wanderers have actually taken the lead just eight times, home and away, this season, spending a cumulative 408 minutes ahead of their opponents.

In addition, they have spent 852 minutes level, and 630 minutes trailing their opponent in games – the latter being eclipsed only by Southend (667), Scunthorpe (720) and Grimsby (756).

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There is no significant trend which indicates whether Bolton are more likely to hold on to a lead at home or away but there is a marked shift on the time a first goal is likely to be scored.

At the UniBol, the average opening goal comes after 37 minutes, which aside from Port Vale (40) and Cambridge United (41) is the longest wait in the division.

Home games involving Wanderers have typically been slow starters, much like Saturday where the pace of the game only picks up after the interval.

Away from home, games involving Wanderers take an average 32 minutes for a goal to be scored and, unlike at home, they are much more likely to be scored in the opening quarter of an hour, which has happened on six occasions.

As you would expect, Bolton’s record when scoring first and then controlling the game is much stronger.

That has happened eight times, three at the UniBol, after which the Whites won every game, scoring six and not conceding a single goal.

Their record stands up well away from home too, with four wins and one defeat, seven goals scored and four conceded.

Overall, only Harrogate, Tranmere and Carlisle can better Wanderers’ average points total of 2.63 after scoring the first goal, albeit the Cumbrians have done so on nearly twice as many occasions.

It is also worth noting that Bolton’s record in the final 15 minutes is among the best in the division – and the only section of the game where their goal difference is in positive equity.

They have scored eight goals beyond the 76th minute, conceding twice, a record that only their next opponents, Exeter City, and Forest Green can match.

Wanderers have scored five times in the final 15 minutes away from home and not conceded one, another indication perhaps that their levels of fitness are good and that the possession game really is about patience.

The first goal is always important in football, at Bolton even more so.

The Whites have shown guts to get themselves back on to level terms on a few occasions this season but if they are to join in the promotion push, they will surely have to find a way of showing such bravery from the start.

All League Two information and tables from

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