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MATCH VERDICT: Wanderers step up when it was needed most

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse

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After the week from hell, Wanderers stepped up and showed character when it was needed most.

Morale had already taken a hit following the recent defeats against Wigan and Plymouth, and Antoni Sarcevic’s shock departure had the potential to derail the Whites’ season.

John Akinde and Kyle Dempsey gave Gillingham a 2-0 lead at the break and sections of the Bolton fanbase voiced their frustrations as the players left the field.

But Wanderers never know when they are beaten and produced a spirited comeback to earn a point thanks to late goals from Dapo Afolayan and Kieran Lee.

Ian Evatt made four changes from the side that last at Plymouth on Tuesday night, with new captain Ricardo Santos returning from suspension.

Elias Kachunga was given a big opportunity on the wing after failing to show his full potential since arriving at the UniBol.

Meanwhile, Lloyd Isgrove and Declan John both slotted into the defence, the latter returning from a groin injury.

The Whites started brightly and could have gone ahead when Josh Sheehan steered wide from Kachunga’s low cross following a promising attack down the right wing.

Afolayan then had Jamie Cumming scrambling to his right after trying his luck from just outside the box, but the ball flew wide of the post.

But Gillingham took the lead after 13 minutes when Akinde provided a cool finish to guide the ball past Joel Dixon from Danny Lloyd’s delivery.

Evatt’s men have looked vulnerable when they have just conceded at times this season, and this trend repeated itself as the visitors doubled their lead moments later.

Dempsey found the bottom corner with a ruthless finish from just inside the penalty area, giving Dixon absolutely no chance.

The quickfire double rocked Wanderers and the game was nearly out of sight when John Tucker rose well to meet Dempsey’s corner, but his header cannoned off the bar.

At the other end, Kachunga sent a header wide after meeting Sheehan’s delivery, but referee Ben Toner had already blown for a foul.

And Cumming made a decent stop on the stroke of half-time to tip over the Welshman’s free-kick, which had flicked off the wall and appeared to be looping in.

George Johnston was taken off during the break due to a knee injury, with Will Aimson making his first league appearance for the club since his move from Plymouth over the summer.

Wanderers needed a big response in the second half but they nearly threw the game away cheaply when Sheehan’s poor backpass played in Vadaine Oliver.

The forward seemed to have done the hard work but fired into the side netting with the goal at his mercy.

Dixon then made a superb double save to twice deny Oliver, first diving low to his right before smothering the danger from close range.

These close calls seemed to serve as a reality check for the Whites, who began to take control of the game as the second half went on.

First, Cumming made a decent stop to deny Isgrove from a tight angle after Lee had played him in on the right wing.

The Gillingham stopper then did well to keep out Afolayan’s strike from just outside the box before making a simpler stop from Kachunga’s header at the far post.

At the other end, there was another big let-off as John’s poor clearance fell at the feet of Oliver, who blazed over. The forward could easily have had a hat trick in the second half.

MJ Williams then missed a golden opportunity to get his side back into the game, failing to keep his effort down from close range after getting on the end of Eoin Doyle’s flick-on.

Cumming made two more smart saves inside the final 15 minutes, first to tip over Kachunga’s powerful strike before denying Doyle low to his left.

John’s deep free kick then fell at the feet of Santos at the far post but the defender failed to hit the target.

But Wanderers pulled one back with five minutes to go when Afolayan found the top corner with a fine strike from just outside the box.

The goal lifted the home fans and the UniBol was rocking as the home side searched for a late equaliser.

And the noise was deafening when Lee poked home from John’s low cross to rescue a point in the first minute of injury time.

The goal could not have come at a better time for Wanderers after their recent struggles on and off the pitch.

And the Whites nearly won it at the death when Afolayan sent a swerving strike just over the bar.

The forward has stepped up a gear this season, having already found the net eight times in all competitions.

Afolayan was used centrally for most of the second half, playing off Doyle while Amadou Bakayoko and Elias Kachunga occupied the wide positions.

The former Chelsea youngster’s performance in the Number 10 role has certainly given Evatt something to think about going forward.

While he usually plays on the left flank, Afolayan’s creativity and clinical finishing could be even more effective in a central role.

Moreover, it is an area Wanderers are light in following Sarcevic’s exit and with Ali Crawford currently out on loan in the Scottish Premier League with St Johnstone.

But despite their dominance in the final stages, the Whites had to settle for a point.

In his post match press conference, Evatt insisted that his side would have won the game if they had five more minutes and it’s hard to disagree. Gillingham were on the ropes and desperate for the final whistle.

But perhaps more important than the result is the character shown by the squad and the impact that will have on morale.

Evatt has already overcome tough spells in his young managerial career, most notably when his side went on a remarkable run in the second half of last season to win promotion from League Two.

Who knows? Perhaps this result could be the catalyst for a similar run.

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