Had Wanderers showed more of this steely defending in their opening 26 games they would almost certainly be higher up the League Two table.
Ricardo Santos was imperious in the air, Alex Baptiste appeared to have a magnet attached to his backside to block any inroads the visitors made into the penalty box, and Ian Evatt’s new back four shape is now starting to look more in keeping with its components.
In typical Wanderers fashion, though, they gave with one hand and took away with the other.
While there was an impressive resolve from Bolton’s defenders to prove they were no soft touch, especially from set pieces, the sloppiness shown in attack was a real disappointment considering the players who took to the pitch.
Evatt’s line-up was so front loaded it was as if Wanderers had some goal difference to overt-turn. And after Declan John drilled in a superb opening goal seven minutes in, it wasn’t just the sub-zero temperatures that left you rubbing your hands together.
Some of the football played in the opening 20 minutes gave an exciting glimpse of what might yet lie in store this season.
Marcus Maddison picked up pockets of space, flicking, swaggering and swerving in a way which seemed to indicate he was ready to make the most of his midweek suspension reprieve.
Dapo Afolayan was also eager to impress. The West Ham loanee started on the left, giving Luther Wildin nightmares, but soon popped up in every attacking position, a bundle of energy that worked especially well with John, himself making a first start since his switch from Swansea.
Throw Eoin Doyle, Nathan Delfouneso and George Thomason into that mix and suddenly the icy weather – which had even affected the normally lush playing surface – was positively tolerable.
John’s goal was a work of art. Surging forward from the back four, the Welshman combined with Afolayan and unleashing a clinical shot past David Stockdale for his first-ever goal in English football.
Santos, Doyle and Maddison peppered the goal in search of more but as the half-hour point ticked over, Bolton just slowed. Like a cat which had grown tired of playing with the mouse, the Whites offered the visitors a breather.
The tricks and party pieces which had been out in full force among Bolton’s front four in the early stages started to look risky. And though Stevenage appeared unsure what to do with the advantage they were being offered, the longer it went on, the more confidence Alex Revell’s side gained.
Wanderers’ decline continued after the interval, their pass completion dipping from 82 per cent in the first 45 minutes to just 66 in the second. They also managed just four shots – two of which were from the out-of-sorts Doyle – to Stevenage’s 11 during the same timeframe.
Of course, the Whites’ case was not helped by the fact they played the last 13 minutes of the game with 10 men.
Trevor Kettle’s name was enough to bring a grimace to the face of numerous ex-Bolton managers but up to the game’s major flashpoint the Rutland ref had managed to keep things moving along quite nicely.
That all changed when MJ Williams went in rather innocuously on Tom Pett near the centre circle – with Kettle showing cat-like reflexes to spring for his red card before either bench had really registered their thoughts on the tackle.
After Maddison’s suspension was overturned last week it would be quite something to see Bolton get another favourable decision from the FA’s disciplinary panel.
Even the most experienced heads inside the camp were not expecting the playmaker to be let off the hook but still photos of Williams and Peet show equally dubious contact.
Without VAR and technology, football in League Two blissfully remains a game of human error and opinion. It just feels a little personal that Kettle’s opinion comes down so often on the side of Bolton’s opponents.
With Stevenage buoyed by the red card and Evatt sending Andy Tutte on to try and keep things tight in midfield, the rest of the game was a one-way affair.
Nowhere on the pitch have Bolton been more inconsistent than in defence this season but their attitude throughout 90 minutes on Saturday afternoon was exemplary.
For all their pressure and possession, Stevenage hardly tested Matt Gilks. Much of that was down to Baptiste’s stubborn refusal to allow anything through on the ground, and Santos’s towering presence in the air.
Set pieces have been Bolton’s Achilles Heel all season and though Evatt’s openness on the subject surprised some late last week, it is hugely encouraging to see something has been done about it.
Other than John’s delightful goal, very little footage of this game will make the highlight reel, and you could see from the Bolton manager’s reaction after the final whistle that the survivalist football did not meet his satisfaction. But given the choice between playing ugly and earning three points and being attractive but getting nothing, surely most Bolton fans would pick the former?
Finding the happy medium between style and substance at home may take some trial and error. For now, Bolton have two away games, spanning some 600 miles in four days, and they will not pretty.
No matter how cold it is out, it’s time for Evatt and his side to stop talking about how good they can be, to roll up their shirt sleeves and get the job done.
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