It has been a quite extraordinary season in football and no club in the EFL has seen their fortunes transformed quite like Bolton.
From the record-breaking lows of September and October to the unbeaten highs of February and March, we have seen it all at the UniBol.
But what turned Wanderers from underachievers to promotion contenders? We look at the key moments that have kept the season alive.
It seems unlikely that Wanderers would have changed their season without Eoin Doyle’s regular supply of goals – but it took a little while for the Irishman to switch the tap on.
His goal at Harrogate on October 3 was the only time he got on the scoresheet in his first eight appearances, after which he picked up a minor hamstring injury which kept him out of five games.
As the team started to settle, Doyle began to look more like the focal point of the attack and players around him in the front four allowed him to concentrate on what he does best.
Doyle became the first player to score more than a dozen league goals since Michael Ricketts in 2002 – and he has been responsible for a third of all Bolton’s goals in League Two.
Are Wanderers over-reliant on him? Perhaps. But even during their best run of form, there has been a general sense that the team could play more to Doyle’s strengths in the penalty box and get even more goals out of him.
The pandemic has had a profound effect on football, as it has virtually every other walk of life, but within the game some clubs have suffered more than others.
To date, Wanderers have avoided significant issues with the virus and have reported just two players testing positive since the EFL brought in its mandatory checks at the start of February.
A few players have gone into self-isolation after family members have tested positive – but the club’s Covid measures in the stadium and training ground appear to be holding up well.
Ian Evatt asked his players to “make sacrifices” during the last few months of the season in order to ensure their lifestyle minimised risk and therefore some credit is due with the relatively few cases that have cropped up.
HAND IN POCKET
Though Football Ventures insisted from the very start of the pandemic that they would keep Wanderers afloat financially, they cannot be anything but grateful for the way fans have backed their club to the hilt this season.
Around 8,000 people subscribed to a season ticket never knowing if they would get to see a game, and the vast majority elected to keep their money in the club when it became quite clear the lockdown was a long-term thing.
Beyond that, the impressive take-up of iFollow passes is another boost which must have reduced losses further.
Wanderers have declined to publish specific numbers but The Bolton News understands that figures of 4,000 for away games are not uncommon.
A recent article in FourFourTwo magazine claimed that Bolton’s numbers on iFollow were the fifth largest in the whole EFL – although it must be added that many Championship clubs operate different streaming platforms.
THE TACTICAL SWITCH
Evatt arrived at Wanderers with a plan and it involved playing 3-4-1-2.
There were a few early tweaks within games, including a back four employed in defeat against Newport, but three at the back looked non-negotiable, particularly as the Whites had stockpiled centre-halves in the summer window.
The pre-Christmas switch proved to be one of the best decisions Evatt has made this season but its effectiveness only really came to light once he brought in two midfield enforcers in Kieran Lee and MJ Williams and a free-roaming left-back in Declan John.
Ditching three at the back meant Evatt could pair his best centre-back in possession, Ricardo Santos, with an experienced head in Alex Baptiste. Their form – plus a quick settling in period for the new signings in January – has been key to Bolton’s success ever since.
THIS ONE’S FOR KEEPS
Billy Crellin’s run as keeper between August and November will go down as one of the most erratic in recent memory at Bolton. And there is definitely an argument to suggest Matt Gilks – or anyone else – should have replaced him well before it happened in a televised victory against Salford.
The problem was that Gilks had vouched for the Fleetwood youngster and, as goalkeeper coach, was doing everything he could to help him over his slump.
Simultaneously, the former Scotland international was trying to get himself up to full fitness after going into semi-retirement.
Crellin’s inexperience cost Bolton on a few occasions but since Gilks has been ever-present between the sticks the defenders in front of him look more settled. His communication has helped Santos, in particular, and provided the soundtrack to lockdown football for those following Bolton around empty stadia.
Wanderers were back on the training ground earlier than any other club in League Two – and though Evatt’s tactical plans took longer than expected to bed down, did that extra time benefit players in the long term?
The Whites have continually finished games strong, scoring more goals in the last 15 minutes than anyone else in the division.
The poor conditioning of players has been a regular issue in recent seasons – but one that has not cropped up once since Evatt’s arrival as manager.
When Ian Evatt raised his concern about how easy opposition sides were getting it at the UniBol, his comments did not go down particularly well with the fans.
The Bolton boss had already switched dugouts, feeling the traditional away technical area was too close to the referee’s assistant and enabled teams to influence the officials.
Crawley were the first team to find out that the changes would extend further. And though ‘Covid guidelines’ were officially listed as the reason every opposing team since the Reds have been booted out of the away dressing room and asked to get changed in a makeshift changing area in the hotel, there can be little doubt that home form has improved ever since.
Wanderers’ tour of League Two in lockdown has seldom been luxurious. It stands to reason that their home ground should be as unwelcoming as possible too.
THE PHOENIX IS DOWN
It is fair to say the appointment of Tobias Phoenix never sat especially well with the Bolton Wanderers fanbase as a whole, given so little was known about his background in the game.
Recommended to Football Ventures by ex-board advisor, Peter Kenyon, there was a collective scratching of heads when a man whose previous football experience was a brief spell with crisis club Macclesfield Town and some work as an intermediary, was put in charge of rebuilding the football department at one the league’s founder members.
It became immediately clear that he had no relationship to speak of with incumbent manager Keith Hill and though some were willing to give Phoenix the benefit of doubt, those on his side began to dwindle when the Boltonian was fired unceremoniously during lockdown to make way for a fresh start in League Two under Evatt.
Phoenix had stayed in employment with much of Bolton’s workforce on furlough. The reason given at the time was so that he could prepare and tee-up potential signings for the following season.
It appears that Phoenix did at least some of the groundwork for Evatt’s move from Barrow and, at first, it seemed he and the new boss were on the same page.
But before the regular season had even begun there were signs that the division of labour between ‘head coach’ and ‘Head of Football Operations’ was blurred.
Phoenix refused to speak up, either in defence of Evatt, who had experienced a nightmare start to life at the UniBol, or to substantiate his own position.
In the end, a good portion of the summer signings did that for him. Phoenix had talked about being judged by what happens on a Saturday afternoon – and by mid-December he was out the door. Evatt’s position was re-named ‘manager’ – which spoke volumes.
The least surprising point on this list. Had Wanderers’ owners not backed Evatt in the transfer market during the winter window, we would almost certainly be looking at another year in League Two. Some may even argue a relegation fight was on the cards.
Bolton were 20th in the table after 25 games. Then in came Declan John, MJ Williams, Kieran Lee, Dapo Afolayan, Marcus Maddison, Lukas Jensen, Zack Elbouzedi and Ben Jackson, and Evatt was able to quickly axe the under-performers.
More that that, the injection of quality brought something extra out of existing players who must have been wondering what they had walked into. The load on Eoin Doyle and Antoni Sarcevic’s shoulders was suddenly reduced.
LIVE AND LEARN
As Wanderers’ form and league placing began to improve there was a marked shift in the message coming from Evatt and the dressing room as a whole.
In pre-season, there had been a non-stop stream of confident predictions. And after Bolton’s early-season struggles, those words were used as a stick to beat the manager in particular.
By March, Wanderers were flying and starting to fulfil many of the pledges which had been made. But the tone had been dialled down inside the Bolton camp and focus was set firmly on constructing an unbeaten run which stretched for 14 games.
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