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


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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse

As a prominent member of the Burslem parish used to growl: “The pleasure is to play, makes no difference what you say.”

Wanderers seldom found the right riff at Port Vale but a steadfast refusal to deviate from Ian Evatt’s relentless brand, coupled with the confidence of a team unbeaten in 10, meant it was no surprise that they had an Ace of Spades up their sleeve.

Motorhead’s iconic head banger is commemorated by a blue plaque at Vale Park and would have provided the perfect soundtrack to a game that was as gritty and uncompromising as they come.

To borrow another phrase from Lemmy, Wanderers have been ‘going for the high one’ for weeks now. Stunted by a slow start to the season they had no choice but to double down in the January window and launch an assault on the top seven which once looked completely out of the question.

Now we are right in the thick of it. And the ability to grind out three points in conditions that would have had lesser sides happy to take a point and get back aboard a heated team bus bodes well for the 11 remaining games ahead.

If Premier League sides were once judged on what they could do on a windy Tuesday night down the road in Stoke, this must be the League Two equivalent.

Torrents of rain and ice pelted down before kick-off to ensure one of the league’s widest pitches churned up quickly. And Vale – such a hospitable club off the pitch – showed no such generosity on it.

Darrell Clarke had already one-upped Wanderers as manager of Walsall in exactly the same sort of niggly contest played at the Bescott back in December.

And Vale had brought the same rough and rugged act to the UniBol under previous boss John Askey a few weeks earlier and managed to expose Bolton’s previously soft defensive underbelly in a crazy 6-3 win.

This time there was very little sign that the same tricks and chicanery would put Bolton off their game.

The loss of skipper Antoni Sarcevic – on his 29th birthday, no less – midway through the first half was a test in itself. The midfielder had been hugely influential against Cambridge in midweek and his departure after feeling a tight hamstring made for some nervous moments as a 2-1 win drew to a close.

Sarcevic limped off on 26 minutes after playing a straightforward pass to Gethin Jones, with Evatt revealing later on that he had damaged his other hamstring and could now be side-lined for a few weeks.

To that point there had been nothing in the game. Neither side managed to crate a chance of note on a pitch which ran unevenly and to the credit of Sarcevic’s replacement, Lloyd Isgrove, he immediately got to grips with the work-rate required.

Evatt was thankful that Matt Gilks recovered quickly from a nasty-looking knock to his ankle after slipping on the deteriorating turf. With no replacement named on the bench Motorhead’s thoughts on the merits of gambling would have taken on a much darker significance had he not been able to continue.

Vale had the clearest chance of the first half when Tom Conlon’s fizzing shot bounced off a Bolton defender and wide of goal.

Wanderers looked jaded. Their 10th game in 32 days was a slog but there was hope that if they could raise the tempo of their game only a fraction, it would not be long before the home side too started to feel the pace. And so it panned out.

Devante Rodney had another half-chance immediately after the restart to focus minds but as the hour mark approached, that relentless machine began to go through its gears again.

Dapo Afolayan, Declan John and Isgrove were chiefly responsible for picking up the pace and as the gaps started to appear, it was one of Wanderers’ real unsung heroes who finished off the job.

Gethin Jones is a rarity among the Bolton fraternity in that his performances remained consistent. Others have hit higher highs and lower lows but the former Everton man has quietly gone about his job and his now growing into the modern full-back role he has been asked to fill.

No longer consigned to defensive duties or raiding up and down the touchline on the overlap, Jones has become an important link in the chain. And, helpfully, he has a habit of scoring against Port Vale.

His only previous senior league goal came in the 6-3 abomination at the end of 2020 and though his connection to Afolayan’s low cross was hardly sweet, it was enough to send the ball bobbling past Scott Brown and into the net.

It also marked the end of a patient, 15-pass move, which was quite the achievement given the lottery the pitch had become by the midway point in the second half.

The way Bolton saw out the game was truly impressive. Zack Elboudezi produced his best moments since signing on loan from Lincoln, constantly eating up time with clever darts in behind the home defence.

At no stage did the pressure look to be getting to Wanderers – a truly heartening sign for the weeks to come – and with Ricardo Santos and Alex Baptiste now purring as a centre-back partnership, Vale’s constant barrage of high balls into the penalty box were simply swatted away.

In comparison to Tuesday night, where Marcus Maddison’s introduction had compromised the overall shape and work-rate of the team and nearly allowed Cambridge to grab a point at the death, this was a job professionally done. Even Gilks managed to pick up a yellow card for timewasting that the great Jussi Jaaskelainen would have been proud to call his own.

It is quite clear Wanderers need a few days of rest and relaxation before going into battle again, and there is not a team in the land who deserve it more.

Sarcevic’s injury was the only negative point to take from a day where Evatt’s side proved they can roll up their sleeves and duke it out with the best of them.

They kept faith with a gameplan which for long spells looked unlikely to break the deadlock.

This season of stark contrast continues to surprise. Just as Lemmy used to sing, the ante is being pushed higher with each passing week and it just remains to be seen if Wanderers’ hand is strong enough to go the full distance.

And don't forget the joker!

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