After drooling over the aesthetics of Wanderers’ recent victories it felt rather satisfying to cherish three points earned with graft above all else.
Aside from a wonderful spell either side of two picturesque goals from Antoni Sarcevic and Dapo Afolayan, this was an afternoon that showed Ian Evatt’s side have more about them than expansive football.
Shrewsbury clawed, they scratched, they slung in cross after cross, but though Bolton looked well below their best on the ball, their defensive efforts were those of a side going places in League One.
Ricardo Santos had hardly had a better game in a Bolton shirt. The hulking defender won challenges from yards away and brought the ball out of defence with the confidence of a man who knew he was keeping it. No wonder the home fans sang his name with such reverence by the end.
Alongside him, George Johnston is a less obvious, less visible presence. But the former Liverpool and Feyenoord centre-half is a fighter who threw himself in harm’s way to protect a clean sheet only denied by a late free kick, given in rather confusing circumstances.
By the time Luke Leahy curled a shot into the top corner it was too late to be considered anything other than a consolation, but had Steve Cotterill’s side taken advantage of a penalty given midway through the second half it could easily have been a much less comfortable affair.
Joel Dixon stood up to Ryan Bowman’s attempted chip down the middle of the goal, punching the ball away like a competitive dad denying his son a goal in the backyard.
Cotterill was in forgiving mood after the game, insisting he would not “single out” any individual – but it stood to reason that if Bowman had buried the penalty, it would have been an even more strenuous test for a Wanderers side who looked on their chinstrap at times.
Journeys to Sunderland and Charlton had clearly taken their toll. And though it all exploded into life for 20 magical minutes where the Whites earned themselves a winning lead, there was no question that we were at the end of a long week.
Wanderers had to dig in at the start as Shaun Whalley fired a couple of efforts towards goal but got an injection of energy when their captain, Antoni Sarcevic, unleashed an unstoppable effort from 25 yards to open the scoring.
There had been plenty said about him in the build-up to the game, and Evatt’s own defence of the midfielder had seemed a little reactionary, given the positive mood around the UniBol of late.
But while the Bolton fans celebrated a wonderful strike it was clear to see the point he wanted to make, turning momentarily to the away end, cupping his ear with a deadpan expression on his face. The goal, after all, had come against a former club and one with which he spent just six unhappy months in 2016.
Just five minutes later Afolayan was joining in with the fun. Wanderers had pressed relentlessly, forcing keeper Marko Marosi to skew a kick into midfield. Here, Dapo came into his own, wriggling free of increasingly desperate challenges before stroking a shot into the bottom corner that we have seen several times before.
It is one thing knowing what Afolayan is going to do – but it is another thing altogether stopping him. And Shrewsbury’s defenders had absolutely no answer.
For a moment, anything was possible. Gethin Jones blasted one shot at goal as the party tricks came out and the home crowd gobbled up every pass. Kieran Lee had seemed to multiply in midfield, passing between himself, at which stage you feared this could be a landslide.
But due credit to Shrewsbury. They stabilised and threatened again. Dixon’s headed clearance on one of his many ventures out of the Bolton box should have been lofted back into an empty net by David Davis.
Wanderers had a brief flurry at the start of the second half as Afolayan then Lee tested Marosi but once Sarcevic had tripped Whalley on the edge of the box to concede the penalty, needlessly wasted by Bowman, the day was only going to get tougher from there.
Evatt had to bring Lloyd Isgrove on as an auxiliary right-back after Gethin Jones suffered a dead leg and the reason Dixon remained relatively untested was down to a resolute and hard-working defensive display which was warmly received by the home fans.
Amadou Bakayoko replaced Eoin Doyle for the final 20 minutes – another factor that got the UniBol crowd going – and though Shrewsbury pushed hard to find a way back into the game, it seemed inevitable that Bolton would hold on to the points.
At least until the 85th minute.
Referee Edwards had given a good advantage for Afolayan’s goal and gone about his business in an unfussy and efficient way that did him credit – but his copybook was blotted with a strange sequence of events which led to the Shrewsbury goal.
Confusion swirled around the stadium as assistant referee Bradley Hall flagged for offside from a Shrewsbury through ball. Ricardo Santos picked the ball up on the edge of his own box to restart play but the ref blew for handball, having over-ruled his assistant’s call.
Replays later showed the referee had got it spot on, as Lloyd Isgrove had produced the final touch on the ball. But if you ever wanted an example of how the rules overshadow common sense, booking Santos for picking the ball up and trying to restart play was it.
And to compound the frustration. Leahy found the top corner with his free kick to make for an uncomfortable final few minutes for Bolton.
Santos, Johnston et al made sure there were no further issues. Their defending had been exemplary all day and it was just as well, the rest of Bolton’s side were out on their feet.
Wanderers have a midweek Papa John’s Trophy game against Liverpool’s kids – a fixture which looks every bit as preposterous in print as it will in front of minimal supporters on Tuesday night. And it is a game that Evatt’s players really don’t need, given the away days ahead.
But this is a team which seems happiest when it is being questioned, being tested, and there are plenty of those ahead.
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