Two years on since Wanderers were snatched from the edge of the financial abyss, it seems churlish to call for the club’s owners to dig deep or miss out.
Every one of the 1,500 travelling fans who snaked two sides of the Abbey Stadium on Saturday lived through a living nightmare in 2019.
Now, Bolton Wanderers 2.0 has emerged from that unsavoury mire thanks to Football Ventures, and had moral compass repaired. But no matter what debt supporters owe Sharon Brittan and Co for saving their club’s soul, almost every one of them walked away from the ground hoping there would be at least one new signing to avoid many more frustrating afternoons like this.
Defensively suspect for 20 minutes, relatively impotent in attack for the next 70, this was a big reality check for anyone who thought Wanderers’ return to League One would be a leisurely punt down the River Cam.
By the time the National Lottery balls had been drawn, there were calls for another proven goal-scorer, an imaginative number 10, two full-backs, a pint of lager and a packet of crisps – but it would be most un-Bolton to react to one poor result by changing their transfer plans. These days cooler heads preside.
This narrow defeat, following as it did the penalty shootout exit at Wigan Athletic, does offer some scope for debate. Ian Evatt has a squad which looks more balanced than it has for several years, albeit the lack of a direct replacement for Eoin Doyle remains a bugbear for many.
The big question is whether this tight-knit, hard-working squad is good enough to do what Evatt wants it to do?
League One has some big names – Bolton being one – and some hefty budgets. The ever-aspirational Evatt believes his side can challenge at the top end of the table without spending the sums that other clubs have this summer. And what a wonderful story arc it would be if Football Ventures could add Championship football to their list for their third anniversary.
For inspiration, Cambridge’s own ascent is not a bad example. Their promotion from League Two was based on the surprising 34-goal haul of Paul Mullin – now at Phil Parkinson’s Wrexham – and a fearless attitude on the pitch which could be seen from the first whistle against the Whites.
While it is tempting to criticise Bolton’s poor delivery from wide areas, the wasteful finishing, the lack of tempo before half time, perhaps we should also acknowledge the home side’s magnificent defensive effort too?
George Williams and Conor Masterson were particularly impressive for Mark Bonner’s side, along with goalscorer Shilow Tracey and target man Joe Ironside, who brought out a level of mere mortality in Ricardo Santos that we haven’t witnessed in months.
Early on, Ironside’s physical presence allowed Cambridge to get up the pitch and create a few good chances. Wanderers, meanwhile, were lost in the rush.
Williams’ cross-shot was clawed from under the bar by Joel Dixon, another dangerous ball skipped inches wide of the post, before, finally, Wes Hoolahan’s clever pass played in an unmarked Tracey to pass in the game’s only goal from 12 yards.
The switch from positive to negative was instant. Wanderers would play the rest of the game faced with a 10-man defensive wall but only had themselves to blame.
The likes of Josh Sheehan and MJ Williams started to get on the ball but too often in their own half, a slow, laboured build-up which had their hosts simply shifting side-to-side in neat rows like table football men.
Dapo Afolayan looked like the only man capable of breaking through those invisible boundaries and he did blast one effort just over the bar to give Bolton’s fans at least some hope a result could be saved in the second half.
Things did improve after Evatt had his say at the break. Afolayan again looked like the main man – but Declan John had sparked into some life on the left and Santos, Williams and Sheehan had dropped into gear and were moving forward again.
An equaliser should have been found when Sheehan’s dreamy pass over the top put Afolayan in past Williams but Dimitar Mitov was able to save with his feet and Wanderers’ best chance of the day spurned with only an hour played.
Sheehan did hit the post with a deflected header, the whole incident unfolding in slow motion in front of the Bolton fans who chose to park their backsides instead of cheer on from the terraces.
And though Wanderers and Evatt went through the motions, changing shape, bringing on Elias Kachunga and Nathan Delfouneso to end the game with all their attacking options on the field, it never quite felt like it would be enough.
Cambridge celebrated every block, every tackle, every clearance heading out of the stand. And rightly so. Wanderers had gobbled up 75 per cent of the possession on the day, so to protect a 1-0 lead for more than an hour against incessant pressure was no mean feat.
There was timewasting. Of course, there was timewasting. Again, however, it felt like any injustice that Bolton felt at the final whistle had been self-inflicted.
Then the analysis began. Is there enough punch up front? Why has the quality from wide areas disappeared in the last couple of games? Just how hard has this squad been hit by Covid, and do we need to be concerned that its effects could stretch beyond the transfer window?
For the next couple of days, though, we can forget the fine details; there are only a couple of questions that really need to be answered.
Have Wanderers new owners complied with the EFL’s rules and paid off the unsecured creditors they inherited two years ago?
And is there any cash left in the pot to bring in another player before that pesky window slams shut?
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