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Why brave Bolton Wanderers are League One's hottest ticket

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse

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Tempered by adversity, it seems the harder you hit Wanderers these days, the better they get.

There were questions asked in some quarters about the loyalty Ian Evatt showed to the players who had won promotion, and whether there was enough quality to compete in League One.

Those voices have died down now that Bolton sit third in the table after seven games and if there were any lingering critics – even the most entrenched view must have been softened by the character the group has shown and the bravery with which they play.

This comprehensive result, achieved at a graveyard for Wanderers teams for the last 20 years, was achieved in a week where one of the dressing room’s popular new arrivals, Elias Kachunga, had racist insults hurled at him on Instagram.

As it turned out, there was more ugliness to come as terrace hero Dapo Afolayan – celebrating his 24th birthday – was targeted during the game itself.

In both cases, the vile individuals succeeded in nothing more than forging a stronger bond between the team and its fans. They will be caught and dealt with at a later date but in the meantime, Kachunga and Afolayan will be too busy playing in League One’s most entertaining team.

Ipswich were one of the favourites for promotion and considering the money invested by their owners, will surely find a way to improve on this disorganised performance reminiscent of the early days under Evatt, when all in the garden was not so sweet.

The Tractor Boys attacked well at times and always looked forward. Unfortunately for them, that is exactly the sort of gameplan that brings the best out of Bolton. The gung-ho opposition were picked apart mercilessly with a incisive attacking football which was every bit as good as their previous outings against Burton, only with a finishing touch supplied.

Afolayan was intent on making the first half his own. Since the start of the season his game has been taken to a different level, adding a consistent goal threat to his trickery and work out of possession. And here at Portman Road he revelled in the home fans’ scorn – which we only later discovered had overstepped the mark.

Wanderers found themselves a goal down when Liam Gordon was levered off the ball by Wes Burns, whose low cross was tapped in at the far post by Macauley Bonne amid cries of a foul from everyone wearing a white shirt.

Gordon had kept his place at left-back, with Evatt admitting after the game that Declan John was still not over the illness which had put him out of commission the previous week.

It was difficult not to be concerned about the young defender, whose newfound confidence took a dent when he was swamped early on.

But Gordon summed up the resilience this team has in abundance. Five minutes later he had pushed into midfield to nod Ricardo Santos’s cross-field pass off for Afolayan, which was drilled under ex-Wigan loanee Christian Walton, making his debut.

Kane Vincent-Young made his debut for Ipswich in a 5-0 win against a skeletal Wanderers team at the height of the financial troubles in August 2019. Suffice it to say he enjoyed that afternoon more.

Having already gone into Robert Madley’s book for chopping down Afolayan, the former Spurs full-back failed to learn his lesson and did so again in the penalty area. Eoin Doyle smashed his spot kick down the middle and Ipswich boss Cook was already warming up a substitute in an act of mercy.

Ipswich enjoyed their best spell of the game at that stage and deserved to get back on level terms when another Burns cross was turned into his own net by Ricardo Santos.

Neither side could claim to have had complete control as the seconds ticked down to half time but, not for the first time this season, Wanderers produced a moment of pure clarity in the chaos. A move which began with keeper Joel Dixon and worked through midfield by Doyle and Gethin Jones, was finished off by Afolayan in supremely confident fashion.

Ipswich just disintegrated after the break, looking like an ensemble cast of strangers. And Wanderers took maximum advantage.

First, Antoni Sarcevic had a goal-bound shot blocked by Walton’s legs, but the Bolton skipper kept his composure to thread a ball back into the centre of goal for Josh Sheehan to pass home.

At 4-2, and with the memories of Barry Knight fading in the celebrations, a fifth goal was just pure luxury.

Which other team in the Football League scored a goal this weekend where the right-back picked up a pass on the edge of the box, fed an overlapping centre-half to cross for another centre-half to fire into the back of the net?

Jones, Santos and eventually George Johnston were that trio. And it summed up the spirit of enterprise this team is capable of showing when opponents give them any sort of space to play.

Doyle might have had a sixth – his stinging half-volley pushed away by Walton. And to give Ipswich some credit they continued to try and play their way to a consolation, hitting the post through Bonne.

There was never a doubt as to where the points were heading, however, and each and every one of the players deserved the half-hour serenade they got from 500-odd travelling fans who had braved the planes, trains and automobiles en route to Suffolk.

It is exciting to think that this team still has areas in which it can improve. There are times when it can look open when the ball is in transition, a la Ipswich’s first goal, and there are types of opposition which still pose issues, as we saw against Burton and Cambridge.

What is beyond doubt is that this is the most exciting Bolton team to watch in the last decade, maybe longer. And certainly the most settled it has been in the boardroom for that entire time period too.

Next weekend a young fan can come and pay a fiver to fall in love with Wanderers, and hopefully experience the unique joy of that stadium when it is in full voice. For a tenner more they can bring their dad too.

Evatt freely admits he's a dreamer and with more days like this, Bolton will be full of dreamers too.

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