MARC ILES' PRE-SEASON MATCH VERDICT: Bolton Wanderers 1-2 Stoke City
THERE are some formidable financial challenges facing Wanderers in the Championship this season but Phil Parkinson’s side appear to have something money can’t buy.
Seeing the millions being splashed around by rivals has been tough to take this summer, particularly in light of recent EFL rule-changes which have made it even harder for the club to recruit.
But it was refreshing to see that Wanderers are not feeling sorry for themselves, in fact, quite the opposite.
This gutsy performance against a strong Stoke City line-up has quite rightly got fans looking forward to locking horns with Leeds United.
It was as if defeat against Fleetwood a week earlier had indeed been a ‘wake-up call’ to the players. But for the result, there is surely little Parkinson would change.
Former Real Madrid striker Joselu scored the decisive goals in the game’s last quarter and Mark Hughes’s side will feel they deserved at least a share of the spoils having twice hit the woodwork.
Wanderers will be pleased by the fact they held their own for long periods, however, and led at one stage thanks to a marvellous dipping volley from Adam Le Fondre just before the break.
Much has been written about Jay Spearing’s departure, and on Friday night he seemed to rubber-stamp his exit in a message to fans on social media.
Will Parkinson’s midfield cope without the terrier who snapped into challenges for the last five years? On this evidence, it appears so.
Wanderers may not have someone with Spearing’s demonstrative passion but they do have three superb athletes in Darren Pratley, Jem Karacan and Josh Vela – all of whom put in a shift way beyond that usually given in a meaningless pre-season friendly.
If, as expected, Josh Cullen arrives on loan from West Ham, the addition of a touch more guile to the middle of the park suddenly makes all the difference.
Just two changes were made to the team which paraded around the pitch to celebrate promotion three months ago against Peterborough United. Pratley replaced Spearing and Stephen Darby came in for Filipe Morais - who despite being back in full training was not considered fit enough to be a part of the squad.
It isn’t that long ago Stoke turned up on Wanderers’ doorstep as a Premier League freshman, looking to emulate their hosts and make themselves an established member of the elite. Defeat on the day did not stop Gary Megson predicting his former employers were here to stay, and so it proved.
Watching the sublime Xherdan Shaqiri was a nice appetiser for some of the quality opponents to come this season at the Macron. But this was not just a case of hold and contain.
Gary Madine looked in tune with his strike partner Le Fondre and later cameos from Sammy Ameobi and Adam Armstrong were equally encouraging.
Stoke could have gone ahead seven minutes in when Saido Berahino slid a pass through for Shaquiri, who saw his shot bounce off the inside of Mark Howard’s post.
In the early stages it looked like being a long old day for the Trotters and when Berahino swiped at fresh dead centre of the six yard box it seemed only a matter of time before the visitors took the lead.
Slowly, Wanderers got a foothold. Mark Beevers headed a Josh Vela corner just wide and Madine produced a lovely swivelled volley which had Jack Butland worried.
Stephen Darby provided a steady supply down the right in his first appearance at the Macron and linked-up well with the insatiable Vela.
As half time approached, Le Fondre produced a moment of brilliance to give his side the lead. Controlling the ball on the right edge of the area, he turned before looping a precise volley past Butland which kissed the crossbar on its way into the net.
Stoke nearly levelled early in the second half when Shaqiri’s free kick rattled the crossbar with Howard beaten.
Wanderers were holding firm until a flurry of substitutions gave the Potters some extra attacking impetus. Joselu was wearing a shirt number which baffled the stadium announcer – and proved hard to pick up for the Bolton back-line too.
Two incisive pieces of football presented the Spanish striker with two close-range strikes to turn the game on its head. Between his two goals in the 77th and 88th minute, Armstrong had gone close to winning it when he hit the post from Darby’s cross.
Parkinson was clearly pleased with what he had seen when he addressed the media after the game.
He knew questions would be posed to him about the added EFL sanctions, and the difficulties he was having with recruitment, but is cleverly looking to turn them to his advantage.
If the manager and his players have the bit between their teeth, will the fans follow? Can the very thing shackling the club’s transfer activity be used to improve performances on the pitch from those who are wearing the shirt? Let’s hope so.
Parkinson pledged on his first day at the Macron his side would never lack for effort, and he made good on his promise last season. Wanderers were not ‘supposed’ to get promoted, and it may not sit well with some of the clubs in League One that they did.
The club continues to work hard to heal old wounds and get itself back on an stable footing. If Parkinson pulls off survival this season, it would be an achievement to eclipse anything he has done before.
Wanderers (3-5-2): Howard; Dervite, Wheater, Beevers; Darby, Vela, Karacan, Pratley (Derik 80), Taylor; Le Fondre (Armstrong 72), Madine (Ameobi 72).
Subs not used: Alnwick, Little, Taylor, Buckley, King, Perry.
Referee: Jez Simpson.
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