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MARC ILES' BIG-MATCH VERDICT: Bolton 2-1 Oxford United

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse

MARC ILES' BIG-MATCH VERDICT: Bolton 2-1 Oxford United 12925563

Wanderers are making a mockery of the old saying ‘if you can’t be good, be lucky’… In fact, they are managing to do both.

Ian Evatt’s side could very easily have had two points snatched away at the bitter end of an entertaining game, as Oxford striker Gavin Whyte scooped an injury time shot over the bar from close range with a cartoonish wastefulness.

But if Bolton had been let off the proverbial hook, it was only because they had scraped their way into the lead after their own bout of misfortune, with Matty Taylor’s opening goal for the U’s laughably allowed by referee Neil Hair, despite an obvious handball in the build-up.

In the recent past, such controversy would have weighed heavy on Wanderers shoulders. The injustice would have lingered and almost certainly shaped the conversation in a post-match press conference.

Instead, Taylor’s goal was treated like a minor inconvenience. Bolton hardly deviated from their gameplan and drew themselves level with Dapo Afolayan’s crowd-pleasing strike from the edge of the box, then ahead when Eoin Doyle glanced home Josh Sheehan’s corner.

Leading last season’s play-off semi-finalists, having beaten another in Lincoln City a few days earlier, Wanderers have announced themselves on the League One stage in impressive fashion. And it was the way they gripped three points with steely resolve that truly impressed here, above any outstanding individual performance.

Evatt barely gave Taylor’s contentious goal a mention in despatches, saving the most acerbic stuff for Wigan’s James McClean and his flights of fancy.

It was clear to see that Wanderers’ considerable effort at Lincoln the previous Tuesday had taken some of the verve from their attacking play – and it would not be a great surprise to see Evatt make wholesale changes at the DW Stadium, despite the fervour which has built up around the second round Carabao Cup tie.

Oxford’s high-energy approach gave them more possession and territory than most sides have managed at the UniBol in the last 12 months and at one stage in proceedings it was more like a basketball game as each side took it in turns to attack.

With the visiting midfield quickly switched to a narrow diamond, Wanderers found space to exploit on the flanks. Gethin Jones galloped readily into the open spaces, yet the execution on his crosses did not always match up to his enthusiasm to join in.

Taylor’s 11th minute goal spoiled what had been an enterprising start. The Oxford striker beat the offside trap from close to the halfway line, then with Dixon way out of his goal nudged the ball around the oncoming Bolton keeper with his arm. Cries of “handball” cascaded from the terraces and the player himself slowed to a crawl before passing into the open net, puzzled that it had been allowed to stand.

We were then treated to the rare sight of an indirect free-kick in the Oxford box after Jordan Thorniley was found guilty of a pass-back, that most 1990s footballing offence. Eoin Doyle went for power, rather than placement, and the ball bounced harmlessly off the well.

Dixon made sure Taylor did not give Oxford a real stronghold, blocking one header and then clawing another effort from under his own bar.

But Wanderers looked dangerous in every attack too, Afolayan dragging one effort just wide and Sarcevic curling another over the bar after George Johnston had seen a backheel blocked on the line by Luke McNally.

Afolayan’s equaliser arrived with impeccable timing. The winger had been heavily involved for Bolton in the first 43 minutes but has struggled to create anything meaningful. He changed that in an instant, cutting in past two defenders on the left to drill a shot past Jack Stevens into the bottom corner.

Oxford actually enjoyed their best spell of the game after the break, with Whyte twice going close and Ricardo Santos making a goal-saving challenge on Taylor.

But Wanderers were given a second wind by Doyle’s header just after the hour mark, a rare example of a set piece goal but proof that this squad is starting to fill in its blanks.

Doyle could have marked his 50th appearance for Bolton with another strike before the end, chipping the oncoming keeper Stevens but watching his angled effort drift agonisingly wide.

Oxford were holding on – Sarcevic’s shot was parried by Stevens against his own defender, looping just over the bar, and Kieran Lee nearly scored with his first touch after some better work from Jones on the right.

With bodies tiring, the last 10 minutes was chiefly done on instinct. Yes, Wanderers got a let-off with Whyte’s poor finish in injury time but the collective will to preserve three points was there for all to see, and fully appreciated by the 15,000 plus inside the ground.

This is certainly a good time to watch Bolton. Evatt’s enterprising team are playing the kind of football fans do not begrudge paying to watch, and more importantly, they have just enough substance to see out results like this.

There is no sense of over-confidence, another mistake that may have been made in the past. The manager, captain and squad look content to let their return to the third tier play out without grandiose predictions which add unnecessary expectation.

Most encouragingly, there it a unity about this current Bolton team which we haven’t seen in a good few years. Phil Parkinson’s promotion winners had it in 2016/17 but quickly had that harmony beaten out of them by toxic ownership. On that front, Wanderers have no such issues any longer.

“I am a firm believer that hard work puts you where luck can find you,” Evatt said after the game. And he is dead right. This team has dug deep since the turn of the year and is now getting some of the respect it deserves.


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