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Bolton Nuts » BWFC » Bolton Wanderers Banter » MARC ILES' BIG-MATCH VERDICT: Cheltenam 1-1 Bolton

MARC ILES' BIG-MATCH VERDICT: Cheltenam 1-1 Bolton

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse
The good news for Ian Evatt is that his Wanderers side have finally started a game in the swaggering manner they had so often been finishing them; the bad news was the bit in between.

In isolation, a point against Cheltenham Town, a team with promotion ambitions of their own, is nothing to be sniffed at. And there was much to admire about Bolton’s first-half performance, which with the exception of not actually troubling the scorers, was as good as they have played this season.

The trouble for Evatt, who needs little reminder, is that we are now at the halfway stage in League Two and the highest league position the Whites have occupied is ninth.

For all the talk of promotion intention there has been little sign – save for that mini-burst in November – that the team is capable of getting results consistent enough to haul themselves into the top seven by the end of April.

Saturday’s 90 minutes perfectly encapsulated their problems. Bolton attacked with purpose, looking infinitely more balanced with the introduction of new signings Ben Jackson and Zack Elbouzedi on the left flank, and should have been well in control by the break.

Not for a while have Wanderers established such dominance in a game from the start and had they continued to play with such tempo into the second half, the visitors’ resolve would surely have been broken.

Instead, virtually all the positive elements of the display to that point disappeared for a 25-minute spell, and by the time the Whites woke from their self-enforced slumber they were a goal down.

Fortunately, there are few teams at this level more experienced and better suited to chasing a game from a losing position – draw from that sentence what you will – and Eoin Doyle’s 86th minute equaliser at least meant Evatt did not have to report a footballing crime on this weekend.

The gap between Bolton and the final play-off place, currently occupied by Leyton Orient, is eight points, not an insurmountable amount. By the same logic, however, the club is seven points off the bottom two and currently on a run of one win in eight games.

Evatt is correct when he says there is no team that looks dominant in the division but what does that say about his own side, currently in the bottom half of that dirge?

It is becoming increasingly clear that ill-planned recruitment in the summer has left Wanderers and their manager vulnerable – and it is telling that Huddersfield Town loanee Jackson became the club’s sixth different left-back/wing-back of the campaign when he lined up against Cheltenham.

The speed and extent of Evatt’s January makeover following Tobias Phoenix’s departure as head of football operations is also a tell-tale sign that all was not right. Rushing in players like Declan John and Kieran Lee feels like a Hail Mary pass but the club must surely now be contemplating the possibility that they will be playing fourth tier football for a second successive season.

Lee looks like a classy acquisition but the midfielder’s lack of conditioning, born of several months as a free agent not playing competitive football, makes it unfair to rely upon him alone to change Bolton’s course. He failed to show for the second half against the Robins with concern over a tight groin at which point the midfield lost its grip on the game.

For most of the first half, Wanderers toyed with Cheltenham like a cat with a ball of string.

The Robins’ excellent young keeper, Josh Griffiths, was in rude form, making one tremendous reaction save to tip Lloyd Isgrove’s deflected effort wide of the post.

Doyle was unusually wasteful, heading two fine chances wide, but such was Bolton’s control of the game, concern at half time that the score was still goalless was only minimal.

Isgrove had been a constant outlet on the right wing for the Whites but after inexplicably swapping sides with Lincoln City loanee Elbouzedi, Evatt’s men lost all purpose.

Cheltenham’s much-publicised threat at long throws was rarely seen. Indeed, protagonist Ben Tozer almost went out of his way to deliver the ball short. But the Robins still had an aerial threat from set pieces and made it count when Will Boyle evaded Ryan Delaney’s clutches for but a moment, and his header bounced off Matt Gilks to be pounced upon by Alfie May for the opening goal.

Bolton have so often been a self-saboteur this season but to have fallen behind after playing so well in the first half felt especially difficult to take. And to make matters worse, a response was not quickly forthcoming.

For a good 20 minutes, Wanderers’ play through midfield became slow and laboured. Captain, Antoni Sarcevic, had been a consistent menace early in the game but suddenly cut a peripheral figure, and Andy Tutte – on for the injured Lee – did not look up to speed.

Evatt attempted to freshen things up with another three substitutions but left the seven-goal Nathan Delfouneso sitting on the bench.

Ali Crawford failed to have the same impact he had at St James Park in midweek. And eventually, sheer graft got them back on level terms, above any great flashes of technical skill.

Harry Brockbank had added some urgency on the right after replacing Gethin Jones, likewise Arthur Gnahoua for Elbouzedi, and it was the latter who barged his way into the Cheltenham penalty box to cut a cross back for Doyle – whose bundled finish proved equally unattractive, but infinitely more effective than it had in the first half.

There is an undeniable undercurrent of dissatisfaction among supporters at present and – just as Gnahoua’s goal had done on Tuesday night – Doyle’s equaliser proved enough to dull the general response to another winless afternoon.

How long that remains subdued is anyone’s guess, for it is difficult to gauge whether this is a decent Bolton team which is under-performing or a below-average group of players reverting to type.

Evatt wants two new signings before the close of the January transfer window and has hinted that he might yet have an ace up his sleeve in what is being billed ‘Phase Two’ of the club’s rebuilding.

The addition of Jackson and Elbouzedi, like those of John and Lee, certainly have promise. Whether the latter two have the time to get to their peak fitness and truly affect Wanderers’ campaign is another matter altogether.

Preoccupation with marginal gains, such as switching dugouts to get closer to the officials, seems a rather trivial matter while so much is at stake. But it does reflect the general mood within the club that is it going to take something extraordinary to trigger the kind of consistent form to mount a push towards the top end of the table.

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse
All depends on personal expectation levels. I'm glad we exist. I'm glad that if we're going to have a go at bouncing back from death's door we're at least trying to do it playing football. All we need to do is stop being shit at it - preferably soon.

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