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Bolton Nuts » BWFC » Bolton Wanderers Banter » MARC ILES' BIG-MATCH VERDICT: Bolton 2-1 Harrogate

MARC ILES' BIG-MATCH VERDICT: Bolton 2-1 Harrogate

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse
If Ian Evatt thought his journey to get to the game was a convoluted one, winning it proved even more of an ordeal.

Somewhere in the Cheshire Peaks there is a farmer known to us only as ‘Paul’ who may have played an inadvertent part in Wanderers’ automatic promotion push.

The Good Samaritan picked up Evatt – whose car had been abandoned in Disley during a freakish snow flurry – and got him to the game on time in his 4X4.

Little did the frostbitten Bolton boss know, but his adventure was only just beginning. The Whites had reserved one of their poorest first half displays of the season for his arrival and were fortunate to trail by only a goal at the break.

But just as he had done earlier, Evatt found a way. And provided he and Wanderers continue to be this resourceful, we might just be celebrating on the way back home from Crawley on May 8 after all.

At this stage of the season, result is paramount. Evatt spotted that Harrogate’s midfield was over-running his own in the first 45 minutes and made an eye-catching sacrifice at the interval, swapping George Thomason for Marcus Maddison. Few can argue that the change worked perfectly.

Blame cannot be laid solely at Maddison’s door for the poor first half, as he was one of several players not up to scratch. It did, however, highlight that after several weeks out of the first team reckoning, he was not up to speed.

The on-loan playmaker was brought in for his creative skills, to unpick what Evatt expected would be a stubborn Harrogate defence. Instead, he was plunged into a midfield dogfight and with Kieran Lee, Dapo Afolayan and Lloyd Isgrove also off the pace early on, MJ Williams was left fighting a one-man battle.

There may well be an occasion in the next six games, or beyond, that Maddison’s particular skillset is required. It is hard to shake-off the notion, however, that he is a gamble which is becoming increasingly risky with each passing week he spends on the bench.

Wanderers’ strength for some time has been their ability to hunt in packs, to shift the ball and move opponents around until they tire. In the first half Maddison, and others, were a step out of time. Harrogate had hassled and harried, fully deserving the lead given to them when Gethin Jones bundled the ball into his own net after Matt Gilks had pushed away a stinging shot from George Thomson.

Doyle might have brought Bolton level when a long ball over the top dropped kindly for him, but James Belshaw made a smart stop on the edge of his own box after narrowing down the angle, and the lack of bodies chasing in allowed the visitors to clear their lines.

Wanderers were wasting possession with alarming regularity and had Harrogate had more cunning in attack, they would surely have extended their lead.

In the event, the Yorkshiremen did rely heavily on the long throw of Dan Jones and the physicality offered by Mark Beck, and later Jon Stead, up front. It is an approach Bolton have learned to live with, and once again Ricardo Santos and Alex Baptiste stood tall under pressure.

After the break Bolton were a different prospect, one more like the team we have grown to like over the last few months.

Thomason’s energy filled in the gaps and perhaps more importantly, spread throughout the team. Suddenly, Evatt’s much discussed counter-press was working well, and Harrogate struggled to retain the ball, even in their own half.

The equaliser came from Isgrove’s graft on the edge of the box. Wanderers had steadily built an attack down the left through Declan John, Williams, Lee and Afolayan but when Isgrove’s first shot was blocked by Jones, he immediately wrestled the ball back and struck at goal. According to the officials, Lee got a decisive touch en route to send the ball bobbling into the bottom corner.

Williams nearly grabbed the second after latching on to Baptiste’s far-post header and lashing a shot narrowly wide.

The goal was not far away, however, and was accompanied by a sound we have come to appreciate in lockdown football, following Wanderers.

With keeper Gilks bellowing “press, press, press, press” Harrogate went into full reverse, backing up from 30 yards from the Bolton goal to just outside their own penalty box. Thomason hunted down Will Smith to force an error and Doyle was not about to miss the same chance twice, composing himself with a touch before firing under the advancing Belshaw for his 17th goal of the season.

Harrogate were no longer much of a threat in open play but their long throw continued to present a way back into the game. Substitute Stead flicked on one of Jones’s missile-like throws to force a fine save out of Gilks with about 10 minutes to go, one which proved a match-winner in itself.

Wanderers will not face the same rudimentary tactics on Tuesday night at Salford but their hosts at the Peninsula Stadium have the potential to be far more ruthless if they are allowed the type of domination Harrogate enjoyed in the first half.

Evatt had a chance to alter things at half time on Saturday. Will he get the same opportunity against a side with better quality?

There is certainly a belligerent character in Evatt’s camp, which was rarely questioned even in the difficult times this season. But with six games to go, Bolton need the winners to stand up and do what Doyle did with 12 minutes to go.

No team in League Two has been more dangerous in the last quarter of an hour, which gives you a feeling that absolutely anything is possible. If Wanderers can carry on fighting to the last, then it will not matter how they got to League One, just that they did.

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