Whether you are describing events on the pitch, or the world around it, Ian Evatt’s first year with Wanderers has been unique.
Today marks 12 months since he was officially announced as Bolton’s new head coach – a title just as unrecognisable as the team which first jogged out against Bradford City on the opening day of the 2020/21 campaign.
At 38 years and seven months, Evatt was not the youngest manager ever appointed at Wanderers – Dougie Freedman beating him by a few months on that front. But the former Blackpool defender was nevertheless one of the least experienced managers ever brought in from outside the club.
He had taken charge of a handful of EFL games in temporary charge of Chesterfield in 2018 but it was his work at National League Barrow which had got people’s attention.
The unfashionable Cumbrian club had been lauded by the non-league hipsters long before the team – dubbed Barrow-celona – and its manager started to get attention higher up the pyramid.
Smart, well-spoken, ultra-positive, Evatt touched a nerve with the Bolton owners as he described getting Barrow’s fickle fans back on board with an exciting brand of football and genuine efforts to re-engage the local community.
Sadly, the pandemic meant Evatt was unable to properly celebrate taking Barrow back into the Football League for the first time in 48 years. The same issues would prevent him walking out at the University of Bolton Stadium for the traditional welcome when the new season got underway at his new club.
Before that, Evatt had work to do. Wanderers’ squad had been deliberately trimmed back to the roots to allow a new manager scope for rebuilding, and with only half a dozen young professionals still on the books, recruitment had to be swift and successful. With hindsight, it was neither.
First appointed as ‘head coach’ it was planned that Evatt would work closely with incumbent head of football operations, Tobias Phoenix, to rebuild a football department which had been decimated by neglect and administration.
Phoenix had already set to work through the peak pandemic lining up signings, also playing a lead role in securing Evatt’s services from Barrow. But the division of labour between the two men was never well-defined and as Bolton’s early season form wilted, supporters demanded some accountability for the patchiness of the club’s recruitment.
Evatt had looked and talked the part in pre-season, making no secret of his aim to get the club promoted. And as Wanderers made their way through the summer friendlies, some encouraging results and performances against lesser opposition rustled up a sense of optimism, reflected in excellent season ticket sales.
There would be no fairy-tale start for the new man in charge, however, and as Wanderers started only the second season in their entire history in the fourth tier of English football, the empty terraces seemed more of a blessing than a hindrance.
Five straight defeats in league and cup left, and only one win from the first 11 games left Evatt looking and sounding increasingly frustrated. This built to a head on October 24 when remarks about goalkeeper Billy Crellin briefly made the Bolton boss the talk of the national press.
Fleetwood loanee Crellin had made an error-strewn start to his Wanderers career, but the world and his wife jumped on Evatt’s choice of words when he said on the Abbey Stadium touchline that the young stopper had to “man up”.
The context of the comment was lost completely as an audio clip bounced its way around social media and various BBC departments but nevertheless Evatt was compelled to make a series of apologies for his turn of phrase.
The situation did little to dispel the unease among Bolton fans and for a few months a section of the support vocally encouraged Football Ventures to make a change. Evatt needed backing – and needed to come up with some answers on the pitch.
Clamour to drop Crellin had built to a crescendo. And a defining night unfolded in front of the Sky Sports cameras against Salford City. Not only did veteran Gilks replace Crellin – a position he would not relinquish again – but other key components of Evatt’s blueprint began to fall into place.
Defensively, Ricardo Santos had rid himself of the early collywobbles and was finding consistency. In the middle, the focus of Antoni Sarcevic’s game seemed to change, allowing him to get more involved in the final third of the pitch. And up front, Eoin Doyle had opened his account against Harrogate but the Irishman’s killer instinct in front of goal was now starting to show more regularly.
Five straight wins in league and cup earned Evatt a manager of the month award. A 3-0 win against Southend United had been the most convincing performance of the season, and it would have been easy to think the young manager had finally cracked it. But no such luck.
Evatt’s toughest six weeks was still to come. Dropped with a pronounced ‘thud’ back down to earth, Bolton were beaten 6-3 at home by Port Vale, bullied by Walsall and then old enemies Tranmere. Even a belligerent away win at promotion chasers Cheltenham Town wasn’t enough to stem the online criticism, which with fans still locked out at the UniBol because of local Covid surges, was the only means to gauge the town’s mood.
Action was needed. And on December 11 the club announced the departure of Phoenix, quickly followed by the confirmation of Evatt as manager, and not head coach.
Football Ventures had backed Evatt in no uncertain terms and would soon do the same in the transfer market during January, the month when things finally started to move back in the right direction.
Had they not brought in the likes of MJ Williams, Declan John, Dapo Afolayan and Kieran Lee during January, it is very sensible to suggest Bolton would have been preparing for another season in League Two. But the injection of experience, quality and ultimately balance to Evatt’s side suddenly transformed them from serial underachievers to promotion dark horses.
There was a degree of acclimatisation, and it was a 2-1 defeat at Tranmere which brought together Santos and Alex Baptiste at the heart of a new back four, a partnership which would be pivotal in the months to come.
It also substantiated Evatt’s decision to allow defender George Taft to join Scunthorpe United – a move which had been questioned by sections of the support after the former Cambridge United man found an instant run of form at Glanford Park.
Closer to home, defensive tweaks were proving highly successful. Evatt had sacrificed the 3-4-1-2 system he had looked to bed down on arrival from Barrow and once he had added some much-needed grit to the midfield in the form of ex-Liverpool trainee Williams and the classy former Sheffield Wednesday man Lee, the team looked a different prospect altogether after moving to a 4-2-3-1.
Undefeated from January 30 to April 5, Wanderers catapulted themselves from 21st position to third, and they did so playing the type of expansive football that Evatt had pledged when he walked through the door the previous summer.
As the games started to tick down, Bolton’s frustrating knack of winning games by a solitary goal began to fray nerves. Calls for fringe players like Arthur Gnahoua and Shaun Miller to be pushed into the starting 11 were resisted, with Evatt determined to get his side over the line in his own way.
Victory at Morecambe, which came courtesy of another January loan addition, Ben Jackson, looked to have served up the perfect finale. Evatt led his players off the team bus to salute the few hundred supporters who had gallantly travelled to the coast to see their players enter and leave the car park.
Thousands then flocked to wait outside the UniBol for the following weekend’s game against Exeter. Evatt and his side had been in bubbly mood in the build-up, mirroring the general consensus that this would be the result which marked a return to League One. But best laid plans went awry, and the mood outside the ground quickly soured after a 2-1 defeat.
A trip to Crawley beckoned on the final day, where only a win would guarantee promotion. And in the week prior, Evatt’s mood shifted to one of resolute focus. If Bolton had taken their eye off the ball once before, it was not about to happen again.
And for 90 glorious minutes, it all came together. Wanderers finally strung the goals together, running out 4-1 victors, and leaving Evatt to spend most of the second half beaming contentedly from the dugout.
Typically, he had not reached the end of his first bottle of post-match beer before announcing his plans to push forward and challenge again in League One. The general quality of his eight signings this summer have only served to accentuate the point.
The man who at one point looked to be struggling to win over the Bolton fans was now being name-checked in songs and serenaded outside the club hotel.
Rewarded with a new contract this summer, as Football Ventures doubled down on their young manager as the ideal person to take the club forward, the so-called ‘Evo-lution’ is now well underway.
Still to sample the raucous crescendo of a Wanderers support in full voice or the low key grumble when their team trails at half-time, Evatt still has plenty to learn about the club he leads. But few who came along for the journey in his first 12 months in charge will dispute he has made an impressive start.
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