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Bolton Wanderers 0-4 Wigan Athletic - the big match verdict

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse

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Ian Evatt has often railed against accusations that his team has a soft centre; that being the case, he should probably stop reading here.

The swaggering football Bolton produced in patches against Lincoln, Cheltenham and Fleetwood was enough to see off poor opposition comfortably enough, and let’s be honest, it should also keep the Whites in operation at the top end of the table for another season.

When they are good, Evatt’s side is a pleasure to watch. But, my word, the opposite is also true.

“It’s happening again,” sang the 4,000 Wigan Athletic fans in the South Stand, not knowing how prophetic their words actually were. For while a heavy local derby defeat stings more than most, this has happened before, and it will happen again.

The whole of League One will have watched the aggressive way Charlie Wyke, Callum Lang, Callum McManaman and Stephen Humphrys went about their business and will be taking notes. Not every side will possess a quartet of such quality, of course, but then the blueprint on ‘how to beat Bolton’ has not changed much in the last few years.

Evatt’s appearance at post-match press conferences is usually impressively swift, certainly in comparison to some of his predecessors. On Saturday afternoon, however, he appeared long after Shaun Maloney had conducted an impressively humble interview, suggesting he had spent some time telling his players a few home truths, perhaps even reviewing a few of his own choices on the day, too?

The Bolton boss talked about mentality, of having some reservations about how well his players gee themselves up for blood-and-thunder affairs like a local derby. All are technically sound, and there are characters and personalities in the dressing room who genuinely deserve a chance at success, but do they have the cojones to win when it really matters?

Evatt is not blameless. His football philosophy is ingrained to the point where the team’s Plan B is pretty much being better at Plan A. He has assembled a group of pure footballers who can now handle the tactical and physical demands he places on them but there is no getting around the fact that – especially without the waspish Dion Charles – they are just too nice.

Wigan may be much changed from the team that won promotion a couple of years back in a sea of overspending but they do have an admirable grittiness which persists in the club’s DNA, even post-James McClean. The outcome of Saturday’s game seemed to matter more to the Latics… And that is a damning indictment on the players in white.

Barring Kyle Dempsey, and second-half replacements Carlos Mendes-Gomes and Paris Maghoma, there was not a performance from a Bolton player that was even close to acceptable. Some had genuine off-days – Nathan Baxter, Jack Iredale and Josh Sheehan fall into that category but others turned in displays that were genuinely worrying.

Some may feel that after three straight wins that such a bombardment of criticism is unfair. And one can only hope they use it for motivation at Burton Albion next weekend, and beyond. This group is being labelled as a flat track bully, and they have to start convincing us otherwise, or automatic promotion might just be a pipe dream.

Three down by half-time, some of the 24,000-plus crowd didn’t bother returning for the second half.

Jack Iredale conceded a cheap corner after just 12 minutes, at which three different Wigan players attacked the ball unmarked, Charlie Wyke eventually forcing it past Baxter.

The Bolton keeper had a day to forget. Not a dozen minutes later, Lang outmuscled Gethin Jones and his shot was pushed into the path of Humphrys for the second.

Just before half time it got worse – Lang got in again and managed to lead a stranded Baxter and a procession of Bolton defenders a merry dance before Humphrys forced the ball home. All that was missing was the Benny Hill music.

Wigan sat deep after the interval, which gave Bolton a chance to attack at will. Josh Dacres-Cogley had the best chance but, in general, the brave defending was exemplary.

Wyke scored the fourth with a powerful strike that went through Baxter’s hands and bounced apologetically into the net in front of a rapturous away following. Those home fans who had stayed were getting PTSD flashbacks.

The Latics fully deserved their emphatic win, but it is important to highlight how clinical they were in comparison to a Bolton team that had 20 shots, put four on target, and who failed to force Sam Tickle into a meaningful save all afternoon.

Such results require a bit of bloodletting and when Ricardo Santos appeared to give the players’ account of what had just happened, he had the look of a man who would rather be anywhere else.

Just a couple of days earlier he had sat in the same seat, talking about his pride in keeping clean sheets, his own excellent early season form, and a Bolton squad that was bubbling with confidence. Football is indeed an unpredictable mistress.

It also works the other way. Should Evatt and his players gather the required motivation from the brickbats which will undoubtedly continue throughout the week and muster a result at Burton, then the agenda will change again.

Certainly, there are few more suited opponents, or stadia, than Dino Maamria’s Brewers at the Pirelli to discover whether you are vulnerable to the more physical elements of League One football. If the away end starts singing: ‘It’s happening again’ next weekend, then things really will get awkward.

This result hurts, or at least it should. Strangely, the performance was marginally better than the 4-0 of October 2021 but the fact that it boiled down to attitude somehow made it harder to stomach.

This team has some impressive qualities but also some glaringly obvious flaws, which have persisted right the way through Evatt’s three-plus years in charge. He has never truly escaped the criticism that an expansive, modern, possession-based approach can, at its worst, also be considered one dimensional.

‘Plan A’ might be good enough to get Bolton into the Championship. And there will be few complaints if a trophy is being lifted in May, regardless of results against Wigan.

If we can’t handle them at their worst, then do we deserve them at their best? Following Bolton Wanderers is nothing if not eventful.

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