It's two decades since Bolton Wanderers were last on such a goal glut so why the long faces?
Not since Bo Hansen was banging them in for Sam Allardyce in April 2000 have the Whites scored three or more goals in three successive games, as Ian Evatt’s entertainers achieved at Crawley last season, and against MK Dons and Wimbledon in the current campaign.
Popcorn football and a party atmosphere at new Plough Lane – but for Bolton’s supporters a persistent and nagging doubt that Ian Evatt’s team are not quite ready to be billed as promotion contenders just yet.
After falling behind to a soft free header by Will Nightingale the Wanderers machine effortlessly changed gear to take a commanding 3-1 lead.
Eoin Doyle opened his account for the season from the spot, Josh Sheehan continued his fairy-tale start at the UniBol by finishing off a superbly-crafted second and Dapo Afolayan paid homage to birthday boy Jay-Jay Okocha by dancing away the third just after half time.
Only a brilliant reaction save from keeper Nik Tzanev denied Bolton a fourth, at which point Great Uncle Bulgaria would probably have bet his tartan hat on an away win.
Due credit then to Wimbledon, whose lively front line never gave the Whites a moment’s rest, for clawing their way back on to level terms.
First, the waspish Ayoub Assal was bodychecked by Ricardo Santos, allowing sub Aaron Pressley to pull a goal back with a penalty, then another replacement, Dapo Mebude, cut in from the left to beat Alex Baptiste and curl a wonderful finish inside the far post.
Wanderers looked stunned but still could have claimed three points had referee Peter Wright spotted a trip on Doyle with a minute to go.
Whereas last week the Bolton fans cheered their way out of the stadium after Baptiste’s late leveller, there was a more sombre tone among the 1,300-plus who had fought their way through the traffic and rail problems to enjoy a proper away day.
The simplest reason for the collapse may be one of conditioning. We know the far-reaching effects that Covid had on the training ground this summer, and other illnesses and injuries have also taken their toll. A team which seemed to come into its own on the 60-minute mark are looking a little leggier right now, a problem which should correct itself in time.
Beyond that, the more concerning thought is that Wanderers did not ‘level up’ enough in their defensive ranks this summer.
The week-long debate over the goalkeeping spot was settled as Evatt pulled Matt Gilks out of the firing line, giving Joel Dixon the chance to continue after his penalty heroics against Barnsley in midweek.
Gilks is one of the players who has been playing-catch up but elsewhere the choices have been tougher, most notably in central defence where Ricardo Santos, Alex Baptiste and George Johnston have also missed chunks of the pre-season.
Evatt went with the tried-and-trusted Santos and Baptiste axis but there were visible signs towards the end that both were feeling the pace of the game.
Wanderers also looked slightly vulnerable down the wings, with Gethin Jones and Declan John looking good going forward but less so when Wimbledon ran at them directly.
In John’s case injury may also have played a part. The Wales international missed Tuesday night’s game against Barnsley with a knock and seemed to be on the verge of being substituted midway through the second half with what we later learned was a hip problem.
Presumably with an indication from the player that he was fit enough to continue, Evatt decided to keep the full-back on. But just a few moments later Wimbledon had swarmed down the same flank to win the penalty, equalising 60 seconds later by doing the same on the opposite flank.
On those little decisions games can pivot. Evatt switched his wide men from the bench and did bring Johnston into the action but Wanderers did not manage to rediscover their earlier momentum in the last 15 minutes and were hard done by with Doyle’s penalty call.
Given last season’s slow start it seems a little churlish to complain at an unbeaten start in which Bolton have also dumped out Championship opposition in the Carabao Cup.
Evatt playfully quipped supporters “have to moan about something” and of course, some will always find a reason. But he also has to accept that if the quality bar has been raised in the squad after last season’s promotion, levels of expectation from the fanbase will follow suit. Like himself, folk who support this club will always want more.
There were indeed complaints when Bolton were ‘only’ winning 1-0 last season, the number of chances created in games making it feel that things should have been more comfortable in League Two.
Now Evatt is in control of the most free-scoring Wanderers side since the Millennium Dome was still doing tours, he must hope a team regaining its fitness will also rediscover a way to shore up at the back. Proof, if ever it was needed, that you can never really win in football!
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