Hope among fans that Bolton will clamber to Championship safety has dwindled to dangerously low levels, even with a third of the season left to play.
The January window proved a damp squib, much of the drama on deadline day confined to staff anxiously checking their bank accounts for proof of pay.
And on Groundhog Day there was a depressingly familiar feel about the way Phil Parkinson’s side competed, then capitulated, against the Blades.
But as the team drove back over the hills from Bramall Lane, beaten and bowed, a little sliver of light peeked through the steel grey clouds.
Once news broke that Ken Anderson is in advanced talks to sell, excited chatter began to spread around the town like wildfire. Such has been the fug of frustration around the club that change – any change – now looks like a positive move.
The disconnect between fans and owner is utterly irretrievable but Anderson does now have a chance to deliver on his promise and affect his legacy. If a sale can be progressed quickly, there may be hope for Wanderers yet.
Those close to the deal suggest the next 24 hours could be critical on whether it goes ahead or not. Anderson’s tenure as owner and chairman has been a non-stop procession of manoeuvres and brinkmanship but the time has surely come for some finality?
Embattled boss Parkinson finds himself in a familiar position to his chairman. With one win in 20 league games the manager can have little argument with the criticism coming his way, and it is difficult to see him win over his doubters, regardless of what happens with the club’s ownership.
The continual grind has not only affected the players but the manager himself. Every word of his pre-match press conference, which included an explanation for the collapse of the Ched Evans’ deal, was flecked with disappointment. He sent assistant Steve Parkin to speak with the media after the final whistle to add a different voice – and there are many who would claim the team could benefit from the same.
For all the criticism of Parkinson’s conservative style, some of it merited, the lack of a goal-scorer in his squad is impossible to compensate for. And it was never more evident than on Saturday afternoon.
Bolton had neutralised their hosts in the first half but when opportunities began to present themselves in the second half, the lack of conviction in front of goal spoke volumes.
Clayton Donaldson headed apologetically into Dean Henderson’s hands from a Luca Connell cross and Sammy Ameobi missed the target after good work from Jason Lowe down the right. Andy Taylor and new loan signing Callum Connolly also had sight of goal but suffered for indecision.
Sheffield United had no such issue. They had lacked some forward momentum for the first hour but once the talismanic Billy Sharp clicked into gear, there was only one winner.
On his 500th career appearance the Blades captain set up strike partner David McGoldrick for the first goal, then headed the second himself from Ollie Norwood’s well-delivered free-kick.
Victory was achieved with new signing Scott Hogan unused on the bench and ex-Wanderers goal-getter Gary Madine given only a token 10-minute appearance with three points already in the bag.
The Blades, promoted to the Championship alongside Wanderers in 2016/17, look all geared-up for an automatic promotion tilt. Their policy of steady but moderate spending over a few years now, coupled with the canny management of Chris Wilder, is finally bearing fruit.
Mark Duffy aside, Wilder’s side were a bit too static in the opening 45 minutes to shake loose Wanderers’ organised defence.
Had Donaldson taken his chance after half time the game may have unfolded very differently. Instead, Sharp’s wily nudge to shake-off the challenge of Jack Hobbs and race down the right gave him chance to square a pass for McGoldrick for the opening goal on 56 minutes. Wanderers appealed for offside, to no avail.
The fatal blow arrived on 73 minutes when Sharp again evaded Hobbs to head home his 20th goal of the season from Norwood’s right-flank free-kick.
It was not a Wanderers performance completely devoid of positives. David Wheater’s commanding display at centre-half was top drawer, loanee Callum Connolly made a decent debut alongside Connell and Josh Vela returned in central midfield, helping to retain better possession than we have seen recently.
Connell’s attitude was again exemplary. Even at 2-0 down he demanded the ball from his defenders and though deadline day may have ended in intense disappointment, to have resisted the urge to cash-in on the teenager could be another decision Anderson looks back on in time with some pride.
Twelve months ago Parkinson was coming to terms with the loss of Madine but still had the ace of Adam Le Fondre up his sleeve alongside veteran muscle in Aaron Wilbraham. This year he has Donaldson – a willing worker but a striker who hasn’t scored a league goal in more than a year – and Josh Magennis, whose starts since Christmas have been infrequent, to say the least.
More than 1,000 Wanderers fans travelled to Bramall Lane and those who hadn’t already filed out into the icy night were given a show of thanks from Madine as he walked back down the tunnel.
It was a nice gesture and a sign that despite all the negativity which has enveloped Wanderers of late, there are still plenty of people out there pulling for them to survive.
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