We had all seen the glossy YouTube graphics, read the deep dives into Barrow-celona’s charge out of the National League and listened to a young manager paint exciting pictures of what the finished puzzle would look like; the trouble was, this jigsaw did not come pre-assembled and thanks to an ill-thought-out recruitment policy, many of the pieces belonged in a completely different set.
On Saturday afternoon, in front of sprawling stands which would ordinarily have been packed with fervent football fans, the Bolton team on the pitch finally looked something like the picture on the box.
Wanderers had put six straight wins together before visiting Bradford and deserved immense credit during that run for their willingness to mix up styles according to opponent, and more often, conditions.
League Two’s rough and ready winter pitches are perhaps not the ideal canvass for a plan so expansive as Evatt’s – yet slowly and surely the team has been stacking together tactical layers: The counter-press has improved, full-backs slot into midfield, wingers track back and hold the team shape, they even had Alex Baptiste firing out pin-point 60-yard passes, for crying out loud.
This isn’t your run-of-the-mill fourth tier football. And though there will always be room to ‘stick it in the mixer’ just as Bradford did to plunder a wholly undeserved equaliser in stoppage time, such had been the quality of football before it, very few Wanderers supporters batted an eyelid at dropping two points.
There is clear scope for improvement in the final third of the pitch. Both wingers, Dapo Afolayan and Lloyd Isgrove, worked tremendously hard out of possession but going forward lacked the final ball which would have put the home side out of their misery in a one-sided second half.
Having reached 13 goals in midweek, Eoin Doyle would have traded a few for one solitary strike against his former employers. He did everything but score – including take the shot which was eventually shepherded over the line by Nathan Delfouneso for the opener.
It wasn’t Doyle day, nor was it an especially productive one for skipper Antoni Sarcevic, who was always right in the centre of the midfield scrap but burned out before the end.
How refreshing, then, that the two players who carried Wanderers on their shoulders for much of the campaign can afford to have an off-day and see team-mates rise to the occasion.
Little more can be said or written about Ricardo Santos of late and the big man was again imperious against a hard-working Bradford front line. Defensively, he is in peak form, but the centre-back’s next challenge is to add goals to his game.
Alongside him, Baptiste continued his Indian Summer, spraying passes around the pitch and even surging down the left wing to push a backheeled pass through for Afolayan at one stage which provoked gasps from the smattering of lucky observers.
That the two centre-halves posed such an attacking threat says a lot about how this team is set up. Nothing is quite what it seems.
Dead centre, MJ Williams and Kieran Lee go about their business in an understated way. If put on the spot to identify either player’s obvious strength, you may flounder; rather that both excel at being a link in the chain. Neither Williams or Lee surrender possession regularly but once it is lost, they are usually in position to win it back.
Bradford posed problems before half time when, for a fleeting moment, they got the better of Evatt’s ‘Safety Box’ and the impressive Elliott Watt was able to duck and weave on the fringes of the penalty box.
When Wanderers emerged for the second half, however, it was a different tale. The pressure was sustained and intense – and once again some credit has to go to Bradford’s back line for not caving completely.
Afolayan brought a save out of Sam Hornby, Isgrove lifted a volley over the bar, Doyle headed a good chance wide and Santos had a goal-bound prod blocked on the line.
When Delfouneso chested the opening goal home with seven minutes to go, not a soul in the stadium could have argued that Bolton were worth the lead.
Whether the next 11 minutes of football provide a lesson to Evatt, or his players, remains to be seen.
The fragility of the lead was always going to be tested in those final moments and in typical attacking style, Evatt chose to freshen up by bringing on Arthur Gnahoua and Shaun Miller for the last few minutes of regular time.
Deep into stoppage time, a needless free kick was conceded 30 yards out and though it was initially cleared, for a corner, the seconds had ticked down enough for Bantams keeper Hornby to join the melee in the penalty box.
After Bolton had initially cleared their lines Watt did superbly to hook the ball back into the danger zone and two bounces later, Rowe lashed home the equaliser at the far post.
Though Evatt said there was an element of luck about the way the ball worked through to the Bradford sub, he will also see on further reflection a couple of chances his own players had to close the attack down altogether. Those fine margins will determine how far this side can go this season.
The Bolton boss wants fans, media, players and staff to pull in the same direction as he makes one concerted push for success. And playing this kind of football, he should have no problem on that front.
In footballing terms, for Brand Evatt to materialise at all in less than a season is good going, let alone under the intense pressures and expectations that accompany a club the size of Bolton.
Whether this puzzle gets completed this season or next, who knows? But watching it being assembled is becoming riveting viewing for the folk stuck watching behind projectors, phones and laptop screens and listening to the dulcet Scottish tones of Derek Clark.
At this rate, we might even get some sunshine before we hit the beer gardens and watch the promotion run-in during in April…
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