A message for some of the younger fans who may have sampled matchday at Wanderers on Saturday for the first time: ‘Don’t worry, it does get better than this!’
Some of the more waggish supporters on the stands may claim this frustrating 90 minutes was a good emotional grounding for anyone considering following Bolton as a lifestyle choice.
Beaten by two quickfire goals from Ben Wiles in the first half, then fended off with veteran class by a team and a manager who knows exactly how to escape this division, Wanderers’ own naivety shone through at times.
But while this result will smart, given it was watched by well over 20,000 expectant faces, we should not lose sight of the fact that Ian Evatt’s side are turning heads in League One, and they too are only at the start of a long journey.
Millers boss Paul Warne confidently predicted that Bolton would be in the top six at the end of the season and is not a man who seems prone to disingenuous statements.
Similar comments have been made by opposition coaches and players since the start of the season – and though they won’t populate the points column, there is at least a sense that things are moving in the right direction.
Wanderers are not without their weaknesses, some of which were exploited by Warne’s canny Millers to gain their lead. Ricardo Santos aside, they do lack a bit of physicality at the back, and going forward, Evatt’s players have wonderful technique, but none are blessed with explosive pace and power, which has hampered them at times. And Dapo Afolayan – who may be the exception to that rule – won’t always be in the sort of scintillating form he has been in of late, particularly if marked by two or more.
In terms of pure football, there are not many teams around who can cope with Bolton. The question is, how often – particularly at the UniBol – will they find an opponent who is willing to engage on those terms?
Rotherham showed their hand immediately, pressing man-to-man and making Wanderers work for every inch of territory they gained. Evatt will be pleased that they found a way around the stranglehold the visitors were looking to put on the game – and though they had to go a little more direct at times to work the ball to the front three, rather than play out from the back, the plan worked. At least for a while.
Eoin Doyle, Antoni Sarcevic and George Johnston all had sights of goal inside the first 15 minutes, only to be crowded out.
Afolayan, who had been virtually unplayable in the last couple of games, was quite clearly a marked man. Fouled seven times on the day, he could barely draw breath with the close attention given to him by the Millers’ defenders.
No team in League One had mustered as many shots or crosses as Rotherham in the first seven games and though their midweek exploits at Lincoln took something out of the legs of their wider players, they still boasted a real presence in attack.
Wiles should have scored in the opening 10 minutes when a half-clearance from Johnston dropped to him in the penalty box.
He didn’t wait around, though, and the midfielder opened the scoring with a thunderbolt from the edge of the box after a cluster of Wanderers defenders had failed to halt Michael Smith receiving a throw and laying off to Tolaji Bola on the right edge of the area.
Barely three minutes later, he was celebrating again. Warne divulged later that his set piece coach, Matt Hamshaw, had picked out an area on corner kicks that they might be able to exploit. Wiles arrived late into the box and beat a static Johnston, sending a bouncing header past Dixon into the top corner of the goal.
In the not-so-distant past, a two-goal deficit would have meant curtains for Wanderers, but there is something of the attacking enterprise in Evatt’s side that makes you believe anything is possible.
With hindsight, Eoin Doyle hitting the post from point blank range was the turning point.
Gethin Jones and Josh Sheehan also had chances to get the wheels turning but, try as they might, Bolton just could not find the same level of ruthlessness they had shown the previous weekend against Ipswich.
A goal before half time would have changed the complexion of the game but Rotherham were able to compose their thoughts and bring on an extra defender after half time to protect the lead.
Wanderers have had their issues against teams banking up – or employing the ‘low block’ to use the trendy term – and they failed to put the same sort of pressure on Viktor Johansson’s goal in the second half.
Indeed, Michael Smith managed to miss in identical fashion to Doyle, bouncing an angled shot off the post in the 55th minute.
Lloyd Isgrove continued to plug away on the right, sending in a couple of dangerous crosses which skipped around the six-yard box, and Johnston went close with an acrobatic volley from a Josh Sheehan corner.
But for all Sheehan’s aesthetically pleasing work on the ball, Isgrove’s effort and Afolayan’s unpredictability, there was an inevitable mood in the last half an hour that Rotherham had three points sewn up.
Every goal kick was stretched out, each collision left a Rotherham man flailing on the floor. The Millers staff even managed to hide one ball under their seat in the dugout to waste a few seconds and provoke a furious response from Evatt which earned him (and Richie Barker) a yellow card from referee James Bell.
The more inconvenient truth was that Wanderers eventually ran out of energy and ideas, even granted the luxury of seven minutes of added time.
After the final whistle, the plaudits that came Bolton’s way felt like scant consolation. This was a lesson in how to win an away game and you have to give Warne and his Rotherham side some credit for seeing the job through.
It may also show that Wanderers will need another string or two to their bow before considering themselves bona fide promotion contenders.
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