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Big Match Verdict: Why Sunderland blank shouldn't shatter belief system

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse

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Ian Evatt believes it, his players believe it, even Lee Johnson predicted Wanderers would be in the top six by Christmas, so why are the rest of us such a hard lot to convince?

Faced with the cold, hard fact that Bolton have failed to score in five of their last six games, the seemingly unerring belief at the UniBol that this team is destined to challenge at the top end of League One in their first season back at this level may appear far-fetched to some.

But this is an ecosystem built on confidence and Brand Evatt will simply not work without it.

Of course, it stands to reason that Wanderers cannot continue to waste chances in the way they did last week against Rotherham, or on Saturday at the Stadium of Light, if ultimately they are to be successful.

It is also painfully obvious that the defensive unit on which they built last season’s promotion is not quite at the same level of consistency after the step up in class.

But you can have confidence in the direction Wanderers are heading and those two statements still be true. This is a club rebuilding, and the vast majority of supporters understand that it will not happen overnight.

It would be interesting to know if any of the 2,000 people perched high in the eaves of the stadium disagreed with Evatt’s view that Wanderers deserved more from the game. To have watched events unfold in person is unquestionably a different experience than from behind a laptop screen, via social media, a matchday blog or on the radio.

For what it is worth, it looked that way from the press box.

What matters most is that Evatt has the faith of 18 men who walked back into the dressing room at 5pm having run the Black Cats so close on their own turf.

Bolton’s last back-to-back defeat was back in December when the club was languishing 21st in League Two and shipping six goals at home to Port Vale. Even at that stage Evatt was predicting a promotion tilt. Convincing doubters that this squad is strong enough to challenge Sunderland and their ilk at the top end of the table should be a doddle in comparison.

Main gripes appear to focus on Eoin Doyle, who somehow managed to walk away from Wearside this weekend without a goal despite registering eight attempts, three on target.

The Irishman has scored four times in all competitions this season, two of which have been from the penalty spot, and appears to be stuck in a crisis of confidence which does not emanate from himself, his team-mates or the manager, but rather from those watching on the terraces.

Doyle has registered 24 shots this season at an average of 2.7 per game. According to, a third have been on target, a third off target and a third have been blocked by opposing defenders.

In the context of League One, he barely makes the top 30 in the average number of shots off target (among those who have played four games or more) but is ranked ninth among strikers – with the likes of Michael Smith, Colby Bishop, Cole Stockton and Sunderland’s Ross Stewart statistically more wasteful.

For balance, he sneaks just inside the overall top 50 for average number of shots ON target and 10th among his striker contemporaries, and only Rotherham front man Smith has had more shots blocked this season.

Had he brought his shooting boots to Sunderland, who knows what could have happened?

Evatt claimed after the game that the performance had been better than it had in the 5-2 win at Ipswich, with the key difference being his side’s finishing. In truth, a scoreline like that never looked likely against a Black Cats side who looked infinitely better organised and able to defend their own penalty box.

Aside from picking Carl Winchester’s 17th minute goal out of his net, Joel Dixon had only one serious save to make, denying the excellent Alex Pritchard shortly after half time.

Much of his work on the day was confined to the opening 20-25 minutes and due to his, and Bolton’s, nervousness playing the ball out from the back.

One heavy touch from Ricardo Santos’s backpass nearly allowed Ross Stewart to sneak in after seven minutes and the collywobbles set in for a while after that, not least in young full-back Liam Gordon, who had a hell of a time tracking Aiden McGeady and goalscorer Winchester while Dapo Afolayan was not at his absolute best.

Once that seed of doubt is sewn, the effectiveness of Wanderers’ expansive football is diminished considerably, and so it is little wonder that Evatt tries to keep levels of belief so high. Thankfully, the issue proved a fleeting one.

After Winchester had tapped in Dennis Cirkin’s low cross for the opening goal Bolton quickly stabilised. Afolayan’s curling shot was spilled by Thorben Hoffmann and Doyle should have mopped up the remains. Frustratingly, it proved the narrative for the rest of the afternoon.

By half time, Bolton fancied their chances. And once Dixon had pulled of a good stop from Pritchard, the real business began.

Evatt’s belief is no parlour trick designed to make his players think themselves super-human, there are real spells where Bolton produce magical football from the top shelf.

For long swathes of the second half, red and white shirts were pushed further back, the ball retrieved deeper into home territory.

Doyle’s one-man frustration show continued, the highlight being a header flashed over the bar, and George Johnston volleyed wide from eight yards with the whole goal begging.

The hard-working Lloyd Isgrove had to leave the pitch as a concussion substitute – which if memory serves, makes him a first at Bolton – replaced by Elias Kachunga. But while Bolton cut through continually down both flanks they just could not get the last job done.

Wanderers defended well when they had to, with Johnston making two big blocks late in the game when things began to open up. To have conceded a second would have been cruel in the extreme.

Frustration started to creep into the home fans too. Sunderland just were not used to his sort of subservience.

That eventually gave way to relief as the final whistle sounded. Johnson was magnanimous in victory and spoke warmly about Bolton’s chances, Evatt predictably needed to keep his own players’ spirits up. But for some, the score-line was harder to look past.

Is a run of five blanks in six games symptomatic of a club that does not have enough firepower? And will that be fixed once Amadou Bakayoko and Xavier Amaechi return to the fold later this year?

Or are we just trying to find a definitive answer as to why Bolton did not get something at Sunderland when there simply isn’t one available?

One thing is for sure – an Eoin Doyle winner at Charlton on Tuesday night will mean everyone has to find something else to complain about!

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