Sitting 17th and closer to the relegation zone in League Two than the play-offs, Bolton have unquestionably found life more difficult than they expected since dropping into the fourth tier of English football for only the second time in their history.
Ian Evatt’s arrival as manager from Barrow in the summer was meant to usher in a glossy new era of expansive football but as the months ticked by it has become clear the size and scope of rebuilding this fallen giant is bigger than he could have ever imagined driving down the M6 in July.
Like his predecessor, Keith Hill, his early tenure resembled a Supermarket Sweep-style race to collect various freebies and loans from the EFL shelves. And in a similar fashion, for every piece of sirloin steak hurled into the trolley, there was a bag of inedible mince.
Quite where the blame should be aimed – or whether there should be any at all – is still a matter of conjecture among supporters, who in the grip of a pandemic have been forced to watch and wince from behind their laptops, rather than the terraces at the UniBol since August.
Coronavirus has made football feel like a very different game than it was 12 months ago and with Bolton now bound by salary caps and squad quotas, the rules have changed since Evatt’s appointment.
Wanderers had actually voiced their approval the introduction of a cap at the height of lockdown but with the January window now drawing to a close those limitations suddenly feel more restrictive than ever for a club with a turnover bigger than most.
A club which can bank on more than 8,000 season ticket holders and who regularly have more than 3,000 people watching their away days on iFollow are being held to the same principles as one with less than a tenth of those numbers, and ironically sitting pretty in the automatic promotion places.
Evatt maintains he has money to bring in more signings, with at least two more experienced heads on the cards. His loan captures of Ben Jackson and Zack Elbouzedi at the weekend took the overall tally to 24 and bedding down such changes has clearly been an issue he has yet to conqueror.
Of course, Wanderers are not unique in having their plans drastically affected by the pandemic. Take a walk around the town at any number of demolished buildings and brownfield sites boarded up with optimistic visions of the future but with no evidence of construction within.
A similar view could be taken of the town’s football club. When Football Ventures took on this massive rebuilding project in League One a hierarchy was put in place and plans announced to restructure the football department. Several months on, and now in League Two, there is a lack of tangible progress, leaving it difficult to gauge exactly how far along the process Bolton actually are.
Indeed, one of the most significant decisions made by the new owners was to install Tobias Phoenix as the head of football operations at the start of 2020. He seemingly drove the restructure from February through a truncated season and into lockdown – but was axed in December with little fanfare and with the quality of players recruited being seriously questioned.
Part of Phoenix’s remit was to headhunt Evatt – and he now bears sole responsibility for success and failure in the transfer window.
Now manager rather than head coach, the former Blackpool and QPR defender probably regrets his bullish insistence that promotion and nothing less would be accepted when he first came to the club. At that stage he probably underestimated what would lie in store, both at Bolton and in the wider world.
You cannot accuse Evatt of not casting about for solutions. He has now used more than 20 different permutations in an effort to stabilise results, something only really achieved for a spell in November when he scooped the EFL’s Manager of the Month award.
His first two additions since Phoenix left the building – Swansea’s Declan John and ex-Sheffield Wednesday midfielder Kieran Lee – boast significant pedigree but no small amount of risk. Neither has played regularly in the past 12 months, so to drag them up to full fitness at a time of year when players are meant to decrease their workload will not be an easy process.
Both Jackson and Elbouzedi bring energy and youth, helping to solve a seemingly cursed left flank, which has rendered Bolton lopsided for most of the campaign.
Elsewhere, consistency has been a serious issue. But for top-scorer Eoin Doyle, full-back Gethin Jones and veteran keeper Matt Gilks – who came in at the start of November at the expense of the error-strewn Billy Crellin – there are few regular starters in the Bolton camp who could claim their form has been totally stable over the first 26 games.
Whether Bolton can make up an eight-point gap on the top seven, or whether we should now write this season off as a bad job and look forward to a (hopefully) post-Covid world of football in 2021/22, it is probably too early to tell.
Evatt appears to have the support of the board and will be given an opportunity on his own terms to get Wanderers back on track - but he also needs some help. Post-restructure, the football department looks threadbare and next summer simply cannot be another free-for-all if this club is to start moving back in the right direction.
If nothing else, Evatt and his side need to give those folk watching on their TVs and laptops some hope that it will be worth coming back in the flesh, when they eventually can.
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