For the second game in succession Bolton pressed on for victory when it would have been easier to hunker down and protect a point.
It is policy not without risk, much like the refusal to name a substitute goalkeeper on the bench, but nevertheless it is making for fascinating viewing and you know the old saying about fortune favouring the brave.
For more than an hour Bolton’s front four toiled in the sand trying to find an advantage. And though Dapo Alofayan’s youthful exuberance and quick feet made him more interesting to watch than any other player on the pitch, his more experienced colleagues Nathan Delfouneso, Marcus Maddison and Eoin Doyle did not seem to be enjoying the grind.
At 0-0, 250 miles from home, on an unpredictable playing surface, and with Southend starting to fancy a winner of their own you could list a handful of previous managers who would have called on the experience of Andy Tutte or the energy of George Thomason to bolster midfield and ensure a point was taken back up to Lancashire.
Evatt’s bold move was to replace his entire front four, three in one go. It is only recently that the Bolton boss has had the tools to make such a ballsy statement but to bring on a fresh Antoni Sarcevic, Shaun Miller, Arthur Gnahoua and Lloyd Isgrove is a luxury many League Two managers would give their left arm for.
Sure enough, there was a touch of the bizarre in Wanderers’ goal. Sarcevic blundered into the box, his shot looping up off Kyle Taylor and dropping down vertically above keeper Mark Oxley, skimming the bar and escaping his clutches before being scooped over the line by a delighted Miller.
This was no vintage performance. Up to that moment in the 83rd minute Bolton were below par and had not looked like scoring since switching ends yet the very fact they had gambled five players into the opposition box late on, shown that little spark of attacking intent, meant they deserved the reward however fortuitously it might have materialised.
Southend had every right to feel aggrieved. They had the better of the second half and once they had brought Ricky Holmes off the bench for his debut the game’s narrative seemed to hint that he would have a decisive say. Bolton would also claim they had chances in the first half to be out of sight. How Doyle walked back down the tunnel at half time without a goal is anyone’s guess, as the Irishman had three good sights of Oxley’s goal before the break that he would ordinarily have taken, one of which was hooked off the line by Elvis Bwomono and nearly turned in by Delfouneso.
Alex Baptiste went close from a set piece and Maddison – who looked most ill-at-ease with the playing surface – fizzed a wonderful effort inches over the bar from distance.
With the late winter sun finally making an appearance the Southend pitch looked perfectly playable prior to kick off, aside from a couple of sandy patches of wear and tear. Beneath the surface lay a secret, however, and 15 minutes into the game the turf was already scarred with awkward chunks which made precise passing somewhat of a rarity.
Maddison came in for some physical treatment from the home defenders and his general play was patchy. He, more than anyone else, would benefit from one of those pieces of good fortune that opposition managers seem to discuss so readily where Bolton are concerned.
The second half was almost unwatchable from a Bolton perspective, at least until the late twist in the Miller’s Tale.
Southend, clearly more in tune with the bobbling turf, moved ominously into the ascendancy, helped by the introduction of new signing Holmes from the bench. Years of watching Bolton must have given supporters a sixth sense for this type of game, one where missed opportunities are rued and opposition teams snatch victory at the death. Evidently, no more.
These days, Wanderers are the masters of the latter stages. No other team in League Two is more effective in the last 15 minutes and with fresh legs on the pitch in attack, Evatt fully deserved to take the plaudits for Miller finding another late winner.
Of course, a decision one man deems daring, another may consider foolhardy. Some may argue that the pragmatic approach is more likely to lead to success. But those people are going to have to take a back set in this brave new world. This is the Ian Evatt way.
A concession has already been made by moving away from the 3-4-1-2 formation he wanted to graft on from his success at Barrow last season, and the decision to move to 4-2-3-1 has unquestionably been a success.
Kieran Lee and MJ Williams provided that stable level of insurance in front of the defence which enables both full-backs to press on, but also limits the huge spaces which would previously open up in midfield and allow opposing players to pick their route to goal.
It has allowed Ricardo Santos and Alex Baptiste to concentrate on what they do best; the former to dominate in the air and play out from the back, the latter to use every inch of his experience to snuff out opportunities like some sort of human shield.
Both defensive midfielders revelled in the scrappiness of the occasion, too, and praise must also go the way of full-back Gethin Jones, whose dogged defending made sure Matt Gilks’s goal never got seriously tested even as Southend piled on the pressure.
Bolton will almost certainly have to play with more fluidity on their own turf to beat an improving Scunthorpe, or a motivated Barrow in the next two games. They will almost certainly have to sharpen up in front of goal, too.
Defensively, however, Wanderers finally appear to have some foundations on which to build. The question is, can Evatt’s ever-revolving cast of attacking talent keep the good times rolling?
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