If Wanderers can no longer match the budget of League One’s big spenders then they will need something money cannot buy to compete at the top end of the table.
Cash has been splashed by some of the promotion hopefuls in this division, now being dubbed ‘Championship 2.0’ for the sheer number of famous names who have been sucked into its clutches.
But if the message of sustainability being preached by Bolton’s owners, Football Ventures, and their bright young manager, Ian Evatt, is to be believed, then gutsy performances like this one must become the norm.
Eight of the Whites’ starting line-up had dismantled Crawley on the final day of last season to secure promotion, marking the high point of a sensational post-January push.
Bolton had banked on momentum all summer – not only by retaining the majority of that squad to do the business again but also in welcoming back thousands of lapsed supporters who had been deprived the chance to see the team’s journey last term. Together, they could be a potent force in the months to come.
Evatt has added complementary touches of class to his squad and two were able to claim a goal of their first start for the club.
Wales international Josh Sheehan took a little time to acclimatise but announced himself to the game with a beautifully crafted free-kick to open the scoring and send the decibel level sky high for the first time on a wild afternoon.
Amadou Bakayoko slotted straight in on the right side of Evatt’s attack as the fit-again Eoin Doyle was able to take the central spot up front. And the former Coventry City man instantly looked the type of front man with which Bolton fans can identify. Hard-working, not frightened of leaving something on an opposition defender, and in the right place to restore Wanderers’ lead when he slotted home Declan John’s second half cross.
But it was an old stager who grabbed the headline goal. Alex Baptiste nearly made a mess of poking home an excellent cut back from sub Elias Kachunga in the 95th minute – salvaging a point and proving the fortitude which still runs through this squad It is a quality that might just be a substitute for the millions being spent elsewhere and if Evatt and his coaching staff can preserve it through the next 45 games, who knows where it can take them?
Baptiste, the very epitome of unsung hero, often looks like he has been forced to play 90 minutes against his will after a night shift. At 35, he has amassed 580 career appearances in all four divisions, but while his pained expression paints the picture of a man with one eye on retirement his professionalism continues to inspire.
Putting it kindly, Mansfield’s finest did not get a clean connection to Kachunga’s cross, but it was enough to send the ball bouncing into an empty net.
“If I’d have missed it, I’d have never lived that down,” he wryly observed after the final whistle.
That Wanderers found themselves in rescue mode as the heavens opened above Horwich was more of a reason for concern for Evatt.
A defence missing the physicality and presence of Ricardo Santos never looked comfortable against a mobile MK attack, for whom debutants Troy Parrott and Mo Eisa were always a threat.
The Bolton boss had anticipated his side would not dominate possession as they would normally do. In fact, they surrendered a marginal 50.2 per cent on the day, much in the opening 20 minutes where they took a while to adjust to their surroundings.
It had been 525 days since a crowd had assembled for a 0-0 draw in League One against Accrington Stanley. Suffice it to say this proved a more entertaining affair. But the presence of 16,000-plus excitable fans also had a noticeable impact on the players, many of whom had grown accustomed to playing to the echoing empty stadia and hearing only the booming voices of their own team’s coaching staff.
MK settled quicker, seizing the lead 22 minutes in when George Johnston mis-controlled a risky pass from Matt Gilks and Eisa was able to slip a shot inside the keeper’s near post.
Gilks is one of the many Bolton players who missed pre-season games with Covid and after playing in a friendly at Chester on Wednesday night, his inclusion was a surprising one. The experienced stopper will not need reminding his standards slipped on the day.
Johnston stopped the game from slipping further out of Wanderers’ grasp. The former Feyenoord man got back on the line to block Parrott’s shot after an error from Baptiste on halfway, which proved a pivotal point as moments later Sheehan picked his spot perfectly to bring his side level.
Referee Martin Coy made a hat-trick of big calls, rejecting two penalty appeals by Whites skipper Antoni Sarcevic and then showing MJ Williams a yellow card for a challenge on Zack Jules – with MK’s bench demanding a red.
“If it was the Premier League he would be off,” reasoned MK’s stand-in manager Dean Lewington after the game. “Why it is different in League One I don’t know.”
Wanderers gradually got on top, working hard to pick-off mistakes from the visitors’ often dicey back line.
And it was Declan John’s superb interception on the left which created their second goal, the Welshman’s cross from the left drilled home by Bakayoko at the far post.
Perversely, it was the Bolton goal-scorer whose naïve challenge on the edge of the box presented Scott Twine with a free kick to level the score-line again on 71 minutes, putting more wind in MK sails towards the end.
Hiram Boateng struck their third on the break with six minutes to go, Wanderers still protesting that Sheehan had been fouled some 50 yards back.
In 2017, Phil Parkinson’s side were beaten 3-2 by Leeds United after their promotion to the Championship. The game not only punctured morale but also magnified doubts within the fanbase that the team was not quite up to scratch to survive at that level.
That is why Baptiste’s goal could prove so vital. Evatt threw on Kachunga, whose signing had only been announced 22 hours earlier, and all caution to the wind.
The rain came down in daggers during stoppage time as Wanderers probed for one final opening and few would have placed money on the eventual goal-scorer.
Seven-and-a-half years since his last goal for Bolton, then being played as a full-back against his will by Dougie Freedman, Baptiste produced the best scuff of his career.
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