Before a ball was kicked, before fans bounced in the stands to the tune of The Great Escape, there was a sense of newfound optimism coursing its way around the University of Bolton Stadium.
A takeover looks tantalisingly close and with it should spell the end of a period of uncertainty some believe ranks as the worst in this club’s history. Whether enough time is left this season for new ownership to make an impact, who knows, but this victory provided a dose of euphoria which has been desperately needed and signposts a brighter future in the distance.
Two picture-perfect goals from Pawel Olkowski and Gary O’Neil lit up an industrial, often fragmented game. Lee Gregory’s late consolation set up the mandatory nervous finish and ensured that Bolton have still not won a league game by more than a goal since December 2017.
It had been an emotional week at Wanderers, the primary ones being anger and frustration. The reprehensible actions of owner Ken Anderson in delaying staff pay, and risking an all-out strike, meant at one stage it looked like it would not be played at all.
Employees stood strong and made it known that such actions would not be tolerated, and the players followed suit by drawing their own line in the sand on Thursday.
Perhaps that is why there was a different feel around the ground on Saturday.
Watching Bolton has become a grind to some, a chore fulfilled more out of duty and tradition than passion. Weathered faces have looked down on a side chronically lacking investment and, at times, direction, and wondered: ‘Why are we doing this?’ For a few moments, particularly at the start of the second half, those fans were given a reminder.
The first goal was crafted by a sublime pass from Callum Connolly to pick out Olkowski on the right edge of the box, the Pole quickly shifted the ball on to his left, catching defender and keeper off-guard, and swept a shot into the far post.
The second was a wonderful counter, instigated by Joe Williams’ pass from the edge of his own box. By O’Neil’s own admission he did not expect to score 60 yards from goal but as he turned Marlon Romeo one way then the other the midfielder manufactured space to drive a shot across Jordan Archer and into the bottom corner.
Wanderers were purring at 2-0 up and should have put the game to bed completely. Will Buckley had a couple of chances but Millwall – poor to that point – took advantage and after a Jake Cooper header was cleared off the line, Gregory tapped in three minutes from the end to set nerves on edge.
Parkinson had spent the game watching from above in the TV gantry, a vantage point he later admitted removed much of the pressure experienced in the dugout.
From his lofty perch he would have seen his two youngest players orchestrate the game from midfield in a way that really hasn’t happened enough this season.
Two Evertonians, Connolly and Williams, are more Dogs of War than School of Science. Both can handle the ball, but it was their ferociousness in the tackle and determination to keep themselves in the thick of the battle which really impressed here.
Neither Williams nor Connolly had started primary school when Gary O’Neil made his debut as a teenager for Portsmouth at the turn of the millennium. Not for the first time this season, the 35-year-old matched everyone on the pitch for energy and work-rate, not to mention the goal he had no right to score.
When you watch the way Wanderers played in the opening 20 minutes of the second half it is hard to explain why, for the last six months, things have been so grim.
Was the regime so oppressive that the hint of a new name above the door brought out an extra 10 per cent in the team? Or was it also that Millwall lacked the bite which has so often made up for their shortfall in squad depth and quality at this level?
Whatever it was, Wanderers need more of the same if they are going to mount a run for safety which would eclipse any miracles they pulled off at the end of last season.
Bolton is not the only club to have engaged in running battles with its ownership. Blackpool’s fate was decided in the courtroom, Coventry City’s is sandwiched awkwardly between the egos of Sisu and Wasps.
This club’s issues have been fought out in headlines, protests and web-notes. But the message has now been heard.
We all want the calmness Parkinson sampled from the gantry, a chance to look at Wanderers as a football club again, and not a crisis club.
It is time for the dirty laundry to cleaned, then folded away.
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