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Bolton Nuts » BWFC » Bolton Wanderers Banter » MARC ILES' BIG-MATCH VERDICT: Bolton 1-0 Barrow


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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse

If Wanderers succeed in their late dash for League One football next season, the memory of 92 exasperating minutes played against Barrow will have long since slipped away.

Substitute Shaun Miller’s goal, however, which arrived once again with impeccable timing, may yet stick around in the mind as a defining point in a crazy campaign.

To put the game numbers into some context, Bolton had more than twice as many touches of the ball as their opponents, 14 shots on goal, a whopping 72.5 per cent possession and visiting goalkeeper Joel Dixon was booked after just 65 minutes for time-wasting.

For so long Bolton were just chipping away at a glacier with a toffee hammer, devoid of real invention and incision. And to top it all, the Cumbrians could point to the fact they had manufactured the best chance of the game when Matt Gilks pushed away Jason Taylor’s shot at the end of the first half.

Marcus Maddison could only watch on from the stands after he had suffered a sickness bug overnight. Barrow’s was the kind of impenetrable lock he was signed to pick and though he has not come close to showing his best form in a Bolton shirt to date, it was hard not to ponder whether he would have made a difference as his team-mates passed like a metronome from left to right, yards in front of an entrenched defence.

That a breakthrough did arrive was again testament to the options Ian Evatt now has on his bench.

Lloyd Isgrove and Dapo Afolayan had plugged away diligently but ineffectively, while Eoin Doyle may well be showing signs of fatigue, having shouldered so much of the club’s goal burden in the last six months. Wanderers brought on Nathan Delfouneso, Arthur Gnahoua and Shaun Miller for an instant burst of urgency and energy, and once again the move paid off.

For four games running now, one of Evatt’s substitutes has had a material impact on the game. And in Miller’s case, his two goals against Southend and Barrow make up a big chunk of what now looks a compelling case for a top seven spot.

Bolton’s persistent hunting style certainly has merit. When they lose possession, the team is getting quicker at winning the ball back, particularly with two thoroughbreds in the middle of their midfield in Kieran Lee and MJ Williams.

By the midway point in the second half, however, Barrow had abandoned any hope of prolonged possession and hunkered down in their own half ready to ride out the worst. At that stage Evatt kept faith in the shape and swapped like-for-like, rather than sacrificing one of his pivotal pair for the more adventurous George Thomason or another attacker.

Had Miller failed to find the decisive blow, that stance may have warranted further examination. As he did, the Bolton boss should probably be commended for playing one of the most patient waiting games in living memory.

Evatt urged his team to "strangle" Scunthorpe with possession a couple of weeks back but at times this felt like a much slower form of asphyxiation, and it was no choke.

Barrow's wall of five defenders and four midfielders were organised impeccably like Roman soldiers guarding a city wall and on the rare occasion Afolayan, Isgrove or the returning Antoni Sarcevic did set foot inside the penalty box they were closed out in an instant. Sarcevic had the only real sniff of a chance in the second half when a cross fell to him at the far post and keeper Dixon blocked his stab at goal. Otherwise, it was a training ground game of attack versus defence.

Under normal circumstances, half the crowd would have already filed out into the car park by the time the winner hit the back of the net, already putting the world to rights. Instead, only a lucky few watched as John swept a cross from deep, Gnahoua half-controlled, half-spilled the ball into Miller’s path, and he did the rest, sweeping the ball past Dixon.

Barrow’s players fell to their knees, anxious glances were cast to the linesman to check for offside, but the shrill sound of celebration from the Wanderers bench, staff and players in the stands was unmistakable. A victory for perseverance.

It says a lot about the changing mood at Wanderers that on the morning of the game they were able to put out a smiling picture on social media of their chairman Sharon Brittan, wishing her a happy birthday. It was simple and un-staged image that reflects a friendly and approachable ownership, no longer one obsessed with one-upmanship nor ego.

Like the best surprise parties, the recipient has to have no idea that the celebration is about to start. And anyone who picked a winner of this game as it dawdled into extra time was a brave person indeed.

It is also entirely fair to give some credit to Barrow. Burnley loanee Bobby Thomas produced an eye-catching performance in the middle of the Bluebirds’ defence which, if replicated between now and May will surely give them a decent chance of survival.

Due credit also has to go to visiting midfielder Jamie Devitt, who went tumbling inside the penalty box in the final few minutes to spark loud appeals for a penalty from the Barrow bench.

The substitute admitted with refreshing honestly that there had been no contact by Williams and was thankfully backed by a swift and correct call from official Alan Young.

But for a brief glimpse at goal for Taylor in the first half, Wanderers had been defensively sound yet again. You have to go back to 2017 for the last time they kept three consecutive clean sheets in the league, the last of which was against Peterborough United as they sealed promotion on a glorious sunny day in front of their own supporters.

Ricardo Santos continues to look a different level, Alex Baptiste the typical unsung hero, while Gethin Jones, who has shown rapid recent improvement in the right-back slot, made more inroads into the obstinate opposition than anyone else.

We cannot pretend the performance was perfect, nor that Wanderers are going to have to be better when they visit Oldham Athletic, Bradford City or next entertain Cambridge United at the UniBol. But after complaining for so long that the team were not winning games, it seems a little churlish to dwell on the negatives when they put three points on the board.

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