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BIG MATCH VERDICT: Oxford 0-1 Bolton

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1BIG MATCH VERDICT: Oxford 0-1 Bolton Empty BIG MATCH VERDICT: Oxford 0-1 Bolton Mon Apr 17 2023, 09:08


Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse

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They say necessity is the mother of invention, and Wanderers non-stop battle with injuries has ensured Ian Evatt has had to think on his feet just recently.

Many fine minds have been tested in Oxford, the city of dreaming spires and academia. It is a place where solutions are found to complex problems every single day.

A dearth of fit centre-backs might not rank as one of the world-changing issues they have tackled in these parts but it certainly had the potential to derail Bolton’s play-off chances.

Evatt faced a big call as he travelled to the Kassam Stadium. Would the absence of Ricardo Santos, Eoin Toal, Jack Iredale and Luke Mbete force him to change the 3-4-1-2 system which has served him so well this season, or would he play a wildcard. In the end he chose the latter, shifting midfielder MJ Williams back into the middle of the defensive three. And it would be a decision which would be entirely justified on the day too.

Williams has darted in and out of the team of late, having had a clear-out operation on his knee, and had not played central defence since his Rochdale days. Indeed, his last documented start in the position was against Keith Hill’s Bolton in January 2020, an afternoon which lodged itself into the memory banks for a post-match interview which mentioned onions.

Though the Liverpudlian had a few teething troubles, he emerged with great credit as the Whites defended stoutly in the second half a lead given to them by Dion Charles in the seventh minute.

Having lost Mbete and Kieran Lee to injury, Evatt made five changes to the team that had dropped two points against Cambridge United at home on Easter Monday. Williams was placed between skipper Gethin Jones and George Johnston, his extra height and comfort in possession coming in handy.

Charles’s early strike settled everything down. The Northern Ireland international has been teetering on 19 club goals in all competitions since Wembley, although he would claim he had reached the 20-goal marker by virtue of the two goals he scored for his country against San Marino last month.

Either way, we can now say for the first time in 22 years that a Bolton player has hit 20 goals in a season. Michael Ricketts was the last man to do it – and Charles will now forever be included in a golden alumni which includes Nat Lofthouse, John McGinlay, Joe Smith, Eidur Gudjohnsen, John Byrom, Tony Philliskirk, Tony Caldwell, Neil Whatmore, Frank Worthington, Wyn Davies, Franny Lee, Ray Westwood, Willie Moir and more.

Charles gobbled up the chance to add another to his tally when Dan Nlundulu and Conor Bradley worked their way down the right, the latter driving a shot parried by Simon Eastwood and despatched into the net by a player at the height of his confidence.

That should have paved the way for more. Oxford’s situation, hovering just above the relegation zone, lends itself to nerves. Home supporters grumbled at every misplaced pass and poor touch, and Wanderers looked in the mood to make them pay for it.

Nlundulu blasted one angled shot over the top half an hour in, and things appeared to be going swimmingly, but the mood of the game tipped on its head with one moment of controversy.

James Trafford’s willingness to sweep up behind his defence is part of what makes him an excellent young keeper. Some in the Bolton camp say he “gets bored” without being involved, and that might have been the case after 30 minutes of dominance.

A long ball over the top caught Williams out and allowed Kyle Joseph to get a yard on him. As the Oxford man bore down on the penalty box, however, Trafford came thundering out and tried to head the ball away from an impractical height. The collision was ugly – much like the one in the Papa Johns Trophy semi-final at Accrington Stanley – but Williams’ proximity and Joseph’s touch away from goal convinced referee Seb Stocksbridge that only a yellow card was necessary.

In truth, Trafford was a lucky boy. The injustice fired up the Oxford fans, which in turn brought a reaction from the players.

Bolton continued to concede free kicks around their penalty box, a habit they must shed by the time they get to Burton on Tuesday night, and though Trafford’s command of his area and handling was exemplary from that moment on, it was clearly going to be a different type of match.

Quite how Oxford failed to get on level terms, is anyone’s guess. Pressure on the Bolton penalty area was incessant in the second half and big chances fell to Joseph and Marcus Browne directly in front of goal.

Trafford had to stay alert. One stinging shot from Cameron Branagan after the break seemed to dip at the last moment but was dealt with admirably.

Wanderers’ defending was primal at times, gone was their customary swagger in possession, this was win-at-all-costs. And when the final whistle went, an equalising goal for Bristol Rovers at Derby County made that effort feel all the more rewarding.

Johnston had once again been the standard bearer at the back, his heroic defending matched only by Conor Bradley who blocked no fewer than seven shots in the penalty box.

Stripped of Santos, Toal and Co, Bolton are a different side, and allowances should be made. But they showed here by securing three important points that they are no less determined to get over the line to the play-offs.

If they can get something at Burton in midweek then the pressure to rush back injured players is somewhat relieved with three consecutive home games to follow.

It might not be pretty, it might not be Brand Evatt, but if the manager and his players can limp to the finishing line the rewards that lie beyond could be well worth it.

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