From the drudgery at Hull City and a week of concern off the pitch there came a shabby first-half performance against Walsall which fit perfectly with the depressing narrative which had gone before. Then, completely out of the blue, came a tidal wave of second-half goals which forced a reluctant smile on even the most cynical Bolton supporter.
Josh Magennis helped himself to a hat-trick, Clayton Donaldson ended a year-long wait for a goal and the stunned Saddlers even put one into their own net to cap a stunning fight-back.
It is such a shame so few were around to see the goal-glut. Much like Tony Caldwell’s famous five in 1983 at Burnden Park, the low gate reflected the mood of supporters concerned about the direction their club is heading.
Traditionally the most romantic weekend of the football calendar, the FA Cup third round has always seen a strong turn-out of Bolton fans whether their team has drawn Yeovil, Lincoln, York – or looking back further – Workington, Bath City or Barrow.
This attendance of 5,506 is the lowest for a game in this round since the war and was supplemented by nearly 1,500 travelling fans from the West Midlands.
Unless something can be done to reassure fans that the future of their club is secure then you can only see the pockets of empty seating expand from here on in.
Bolton had beaten Rotherham United and held Stoke City to a sturdy draw in their last two home games, so it was difficult to fathom why their approach to facing Walsall, a side sitting 15th in League One, was quite so stand-offish.
Parkinson opted for a 4-3-3 system, with Yanic Wildschut and Craig Noone alongside Magennis up front, but as so often seems the case the team’s cautiousness made it look more like 4-5-1.
Luke Murphy made a welcome return to the team, his positivity on the ball one of the few highlights of a nervy first half.
When Andy Cook nodded in Matt Jarvis’s left-wing cross after 19 minutes it looked like being a long afternoon. The move had stemmed from Josh Vela’s mis-control 35 yards out but the space afforded to ex-England winger Jarvis, and the eventual goal-scorer was especially disappointing.
Aside from a few pacey breaks from Wildschut and a header from Murphy aimed straight at keeper Liam Roberts, there was little evidence of Bolton’s Championship class.
Morgan Ferrier looked lively up front for the Saddlers, denied at one stage by a fine saving challenge from Mark Beevers. He also had a shot saved well by a scrambling Ben Alnwick moments into the second half after Jonathan Grounds’ clearance had been charged down.
Parkinson made a double change at the interval. Wildschut had twisted his ankle, as so was withdrawn for Will Buckley, and Vela – who had looked so out of sorts – stepped aside for Donaldson.
The change to a 4-4-2, which also allowed Craig Noone to switch to his more natural left side, seemed to take the shackles off in the second period.
As Walsall tired, Noone became more influential. A quick corner allowed him to drive a low cross in for Magennis, whose moment of mis-control allowed Donaldson to pounce for the equaliser.
The experienced striker had not scored since the previous January, when he did so for Sheffield United against Norwich City. Although his wait had been a week why of a year, it spanned just 1,069 minutes of football – or just under 12 games.
Having made amends for a horrendous miss at Hull, Donaldson went on to really change the game in Bolton’s favour. Just three minutes later he connected with a floated cross from Noone to bring a fingertip save out of Roberts, Magennis ghosting in at the far post to put his side ahead.
Noone was enjoying a real purple patch by this point, and his early centre aimed towards Donaldson was put into his own net by Walsall defender Jon Guthrie to leave the smattering of Bolton fans quite gobsmacked.
Of course it is never plain sailing. The Saddlers grabbed a goal back when Jarvis teed up George Dobson on the edge of the area and his shot bounced off both Murphy and Beevers to leave Alnwick helpless as the ball rolled into the net.
Thankfully, any fears of a late rally were quickly quelled with 10 minutes remaining. Noone supplied another delightful ball from the left sent with torpedo-like accuracy by Magennis past Roberts.
There was time for the Northern Irishman to grab a slice of history before the end of the game, too. After Buckley had nudged a pass through on the edge of the box, Magennis turned to strike a shot against the post, then bury the rebound to become the first Wanderers player to score a hat-trick in an FA Cup game since Dean Holdsworth did against Scunthorpe United in 2001.
Wanderers had not scored five goals in the same half since beating Swindon Town 7-0 at Burnden Park in March, 1997.
There was still time for Parkinson to give Luca Connell, Bolton’s prodigious midfield talent, his debut from the bench. In doing so, the 17-year-old became the first Wanderers player born since the millennium to represent the club.
After jotting down so many lows in recent months and years, it is a joy to be reporting that kind of record for a change.
Four-time winners of this competition, Wanderers will be thinking financially as they watch the draw for the fourth round on Monday evening, where a Premier League pairing could make the world of difference.
It is back to reality next weekend at Bristol City but one wonders if the success of the second-half striker pairing could convince Parkinson to try something more adventurous, particularly at home, in the future?
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