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Bolton defensive young guns backed against Rotherham United

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse

Bolton defensive young guns backed against Rotherham United 13017824

Rotherham's beefed-up attack look set to give Wanderers’ young back four their toughest test of the season so far – but Ian Evatt has full faith they can withstand the pressure.

With in-form target man Michael Smith front and centre, the Millers’ front line has been one of the most productive in League One so far this season.

No team has had more shots on goal, nor put more crosses into the box, but nevertheless Paul Warne’s side start two points behind Bolton at start of play this afternoon, having lost three of their opening seven games after relegation from the Championship.

Wanderers crashed five past Ipswich Town last weekend and have attracted admiring glances from all around the footballing fraternity for the standard of their own attacking football in the last few weeks.

Defensively, even in victory at Portman Road there were signs that a relatively untested and unfamiliar back four are still finding their feet.

“That has gone under the radar, hasn’t it? The back four that played at Ipswich – 21, 22, 25, 25 – it is very young, very inexperienced in many ways,” Evatt pointed out in his pre-match press conference.

“Last season was Gethin Jones’s first full season in football. Rico stepped into the EFL properly for the first time last season, Liam Gordon and George Johnston are just starting really, so they will all improve in time.

“Those partnerships take time to form but they will form.”

In ex-Liverpool and Feyenoord defender George Johnston, Evatt has found a new partner for last season’s player of the year Ricardo Santos which he feels could be a long-term successor for Alex Baptiste.

This afternoon he will come up against 6ft 4ins Michael Smith, whose five goals in his last seven starts have already caught the attention of several Championship clubs.

But Evatt is backing the Johnston and Santos partnership to flourish in what he feels is a good blend in the centre of his defence.

“I have said to George that he is very fortunate that he has Alex Baptiste, Sam Hird and Peter Atherton, who were not the biggest centre-backs but they were good players who knew how to use their body, to play to their strengths and hide their deficiencies. He is learning all the time with that,” he said.

“Rico is a physical monster. I think if you could build a centre-back you’d build him and I wish I’d had his attributes when I was a player.

“For him it is about concentration and positioning, knowing where to put himself, and also becoming more vocal and being a leader.”

Wanderers leaned heavily on the leadership qualities of Alex Baptiste and goalkeeper Matt Gilks in League Two last term and though both players have been moved to the bench in recent weeks, Evatt says they are still heavily influencing the team.

“At the moment we are happy with how we are going,” he said.

“Baps has been a big part of what we have done this season and Matt is a big part of the playing staff and our coaching staff. He is a huge character of importance to us going forwards.

“Don’t underestimate the role Baps has played and will play again.

“For now, I think Rico and George have formed a decent partnership. But the experience you get from Baps and Matt and players like them is invaluable to the changing room because they have both had fantastic careers and they are good people.”

Both Baptiste and Gilks turned out for the reserve team in the Central League Cup on Tuesday afternoon, taking on Accrington Stanley.

Evatt did not make their appearance mandatory, as he did with some of the other first teamers involved. But the Whites boss notes that their willingness to play and help the younger players in the squad underlines how important they are behind the scenes.

“We gave them the option and they wanted to play, so that speaks volumes about their character,” he said.

“Their professionalism and their experience is second to none.

“Some of them will be told they are playing. Others, Matt and Baps – who has played quite a lot this season – don’t physically need the game and at their age we need to manage them differently to some of the others.

“I think the fact they wanted to play says a lot about them as people and also of their work ethic. We are lucky to have them.”

The likes of George Thomason and Nathan Delfouneso also turned out at Lostock in midweek to keep themselves sharp and Evatt is pleased with how the reserve set-up, managed by Sam Hird, is turning out.

“The whole point of that league and those matches are to keep players first-team ready,” he said. “You never know what can happen in football, it can change in an instant.

“We have to make sure they are able to get up to speed, so these games can give them 90 minutes of intense football work, like training in a game mode.

“Their attitude and application has been fantastic in the two weeks, so if those players get their opportunity I am sure they can take it.”

Hird’s side ended up grabbing a point with a late goal having led the game 2-0 and the coach’s disappointment with aspects of the second-half performance were echoed by Evatt, who is demanding that standards stay high from top to bottom.

“At this football club we should be getting used to, and want to win games on a regular basis and when you don’t from that position then it can be disappointing,” he said.

“Sam is a winner, we all are. It can be better, so we’ll keep driving standards to make sure we improve.”


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