Ian Evatt’s side are now looking like bona fide promotion candidates, flying on their best unbeaten run for two decades.
But if Saturday’s game proved anything, it is that both the young manager and his improving team cannot allow themselves a moment of self-congratulation for turning around their season in such dramatic fashion, at least until they climb back aboard the team bus from Crawley in May.
Wanderers once looked as if a reputation for playing possession football had been grafted on from Evatt’s previous successes at Barrow. Now, they truly are playing the kind of football we were promised last summer – and when it comes off, it is a joy to behold.
The national media have cottoned on to the sudden change in fortune. And while Bolton’s name still cannot be mentioned without the words “Premier League, relegation and financial difficulties” following close behind, there is at least something else to discuss – a brand of football that feels fresh, modern, and forward-thinking.
The trouble with gaining such repute, however, is that opposing teams are only too happy to use it as motivation. And just a couple of hours after Football Focus had thrown comparisons to Manchester City’s swaggering style Bolton’s way, Walsall were 1-0 up at the UniBol with 10 players parked on the edge of their own penalty area.
Due credit to Brian Dutton’s side, who pressed and harried Wanderers in a way they had not experienced during a difficult first half.
Ricardo Santos had Caolan Lavery nipping at his toes every time he looked to step out of defence, a busy midfield stole a march on the normally-impeccable Kieran Lee and MJ Williams, and the forward line of Eoin Doyle, Nathan Delfouneso, Dapo Afolayan and Lloyd Isgrove searched unsuccessfully for space behind the red, white and green barrage.
When Sam Perry struck a sweet half-volley midway through the first half to give the Midlanders a lead to protect, you feared for what was in store.
Knives were being sharpened, accusations of believing your own press, or over-hyping the recent success were sure to follow.
But in the latter stages of the first half, Evatt stepped out of the dugout and walked up to the top of the stand to his own lofty perch. There, he mapped out a plan for the second half and, after some stern words inside the dressing room, they were executed to the letter for three more precious points.
Wanderers never did look at their free-flowing best, the sort of quick-fire waves of attack that we saw against Scunthorpe or Cambridge, but after the interval the subtle shift in pattern worked just enough to see them build up momentum.
Kieran Lee, who had been slow to react to Perry’s earlier volley, was suddenly everywhere. He nodded in the equalising goal after Gethin Jones’s cross bounced off a Walsall defender and the ball pushed up into the air by unfortunate keeper Liam Roberts.
Evatt had been ready to change things from the bench but seeing his team had shifted gear he told his replacements to sit down again. He knew what was coming, and so did everyone else watching at home.
Not six minutes after Lee’s goal, former Bolton defender Hayden White lost his rag with Dapo Afolayan and pushed him away in frustration.
Referee Sebastien Stocksbridge produced a red card and though it was easy to have some sympathy with the Walsall man, the modern game just does not allow for retaliation.
With 10 men there was simply no way Walsall were going to hold out. Seven minutes later a quick interchange on the edge of the box involving Doyle and Lee saw the latter tripped by Matt Sadler.
Ref Stocksbridge pointed to the spot, and Eoin Doyle picked the ball up to slam home his 15th goal of the season. In those few seconds the Irishman underlined his class in a game where he had precious little else to occupy his time.
It would not be Bolton Wanderers unless there was at least some drama in the final stages. And as Walsall keeper Roberts raced up to join a packed penalty area for a series of injury time free kicks, long throws and corner kicks, nervous spectators may have retreated behind the settee.
The real heart-in-mouth moment arrived as full-back Cameron Norman went sprawling under a penalty box challenge from Lee, promoting frantic appeals for a penalty from the visiting camp. Ref Stocksbridge was unamused, booking Norman for diving. Replays show he was entirely right to do so.
Officials have not had an easy ride at Bolton this season. Questions have been asked about consistency and quality but in getting the big calls completely right – without the need for technology – it is nice to see there are some good referees still out there.
Wanderers have 10 games left – four at home, six away – and already look like a team that has timed its run well for a play-off berth at the very least.
Back at the start of the season we talked about a club with a target on its back. Lacking the current depth of squad or the familiarity with Evatt’s tactics, the team looked more like sitting ducks.
All those confident statements of promotion intent from manager and new signings alike, had started to look ridiculous by the end of 2020. But who is laughing now?
Next weekend’s televised game at Forest Green will be their biggest test yet. If they can bring a point or better back from Gloucestershire, then we really can start discussing a top three finish.
There is a saying in football that good teams find a way to win. And on a weekly basis, Evatt and Wanderers are figuring out a way to unpick opponents’ efforts to spoil and frustrate. Forest Green, playing at home, will fancy their chances.
It is starting to get serious. Thankfully, Bolton have that look in their eye.
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