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Ten things Bolton must do to make the playoffs in League One

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse

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Wanderers have six games remaining to book their play-off spot and put themselves in contention for Championship football next season.

Tension was turned up on Monday as the Whites dipped to sixth spot when Cambridge United grabbed a draw at the University of Bolton Stadium but their fate remains in their own hands and with a favourable run-in, we’re backing Ian Evatt’s side to get the job done.

Starting with the trip to Oxford United on Saturday we’re calling on all Wanderers fans to get behind the team and cheer them on to the play-offs.

And here is our 10-point plan on how Evatt, his players and the supporters can give themselves the best possible chance of success.

1. It’s a squad game: Changes made against Cambridge United created some discord among supporters but if he is to negotiate a packed April, Ian Evatt simply must rotate his options to keep players fresh, and free from injury.

Planning ahead for different opposition – for example the very different styles of upcoming opponents Oxford United and Burton Albion – will be important, especially with players like Dion Charles and Conor Bradley, who have already played 52 and 53 times, respectively, for club and country this season.

Decisions are being made by looking at players’ physical data, their performances in training, all of which is done away from the public gaze.

2. Keep focus: Sam Smith’s 95th minute equaliser was always going to be a bitter pill to swallow – and inevitably meant Bolton’s players and fans walked away from the game with a feeling of disappointment. As ever, social media echoed with theories on what went wrong, what mistakes were made, how all this had been predicted in a tweet last February, but Evatt and his players cannot afford to listen to the noise or allow emotions to play too significant a part in decision-making. The manager and his players are not above criticism – but they alone are responsible for correcting their course.

3. Roll with the punches: The loss of Ricardo Santos and Eoin Toal HAS come at an inopportune time for Wanderers, of that there is no doubt. To dwell too much on the injustice – particularly with that awful challenge by Sam Cosgrove at Wembley – won’t do anyone any good in the long run. Evatt and his side need to come up with a short-term plan to manage without two key men and make it work.

4. Winning it with kids: Throughout the season Wanderers have put their faith in young players like James Trafford, Conor Bradley, George Thomason and Aaron Morley, and accepted there will be peaks and troughs in their form – all three have improved as a result. That same belief has been placed in Shola Shoretire and Luke Mbete, who are both going through a difficult patch, and now the two Premier League loanees must make their pedigree count.

5. Big picture: To some degree, winning the Papa Johns Trophy at Wembley has already guaranteed that Bolton will emerge with credit from this season. Their aim had been a top six spot in the league and – as things stand – that too is on track. Whether the glittering win against Plymouth has taken the edge off the players’ physical and mental readiness will be easier to assess in the summer. For now, the Whites need to crack on and reach their target.

6. Confidence is a preference: It has been said so often of Evatt’s Wanderers that the team needs a spring in their step to function properly. Whether it has been the untimely injuries, or fatigue setting in after Wembley, that swagger has not quite been there in the last couple of games.

Evatt and his staff have a job on their hands now to ensure the squad shrugs off the disappointment of that last-gasp equaliser and continues in the same resolute vein that saw them grind out a win at Exeter on Good Friday.

7. Home comfort: There have been times this season when the UniBol has been rocking, and others where the big crowds felt like they weighed heavily on Bolton’s shoulders. After trips to Oxford and Burton Albion the Whites have three consecutive home games against Shrewsbury, Accrington and Fleetwood – three of League One’s grittiest battlers – and every effort must be made to make that atmosphere and positive and partisan one. A play-off place could be secured with positive results in all three of those games.

8. Positive thinking: If Bolton are to keep the fans completely on board, then they too have a responsibility to keep the tempo of their football high, and to be brave on the ball. We have all seen the downside to possession-based football, especially against teams who sit back and defend, but when the Whites get into their groove they can be very difficult to stop.

9. It is going down to the wire: With six games to play, and half a dozen teams still in with a shout of making the top six, Bolton’s supporters must make their peace with the fact that the success or failure of the play-off chase will almost certainly be decided on the final weekend of the season with a trip to Bristol Rovers. After that, it is a clean slate once again.

Wanderers have given us quite a steady ride so far and have rarely dipped below sixth place since September. Here’s hoping that continues all the way to the Memorial Stadium and beyond.

10. Back the boss: Ian Evatt is coming up to three years in charge at Wanderers, during which time there has been one promotion, a ninth-place finish in League One and a Papa Johns Trophy win. Can he top all that by leading his team into the play-offs, and possibly even a return to Wembley?

Throughout his time in charge Evatt has found answers when problems have arisen, got reward for keeping faith with players who had effectively been written off by others. So with some questions being asked about the quality and consistency of the club’s January window recruits, this is the opportunity to put the record straight.

Wanderers are missing some big names – Santos, Toal, Jack Iredale, Jon Dadi Bodvarsson – but they have a squad which is capable of getting this job done.

Evatt won’t be able to do it alone. Bolton’s fanbase has been in top form this season up and down the country but they too must be ready for one final push over the next half a dozen games.

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