Apathy has replaced any feeling of hope for Wanderers fans, and seemingly a group of dispirited players who gave themselves far too much to do against Boro in a woeful first half performance.
Two goals from Bolton fan Ashley Fletcher was the least Tony Pulis’s side deserved at half time as they bounced back in style from a six-game losing streak.
Unpaid and virtually uninterested for 45 minutes, Wanderers did improve after the break and hit the bar with the last kick of the game through Sammy Ameobi.
But one shot on target, no goals and no points rather sums up how this season has gone. And depending on how results go for Millwall, Reading and the like between now and Saturday evening – Wanderers might be relegated with defeat at Derby County.
Fans were treated to an episode of Eastenders on the concourse TVs before the game, and any who have been following the Wanderers soap opera this last few months might have welcomed the opportunity of a bit of light relief.
Outside, The Stone Roses classic ‘I Am the Resurrection’ belted out optimistically to a mostly-empty stadium. A Bolton comeback looks improbable even as Easter approaches.
Phil Parkinson made three changes to the side beaten by Ipswich Town at the weekend, bringing in Luca Connell and Craig Noone, who had impressed off the bench, and Marc Wilson to play in a back three. Gary O’Neil passed a pre-match fitness test, which meant there was no place for Erhun Oztumer.
Making way were Andy Taylor, Callum Connolly and Will Buckley.
Boro have drawn quite a lot of criticism from their own supporters for the direct style of play under Pulis but, given ample encouragement from a deep-lying Wanderers defence, they were able to play incisive counter-attacking football from the off.
It took just 16 minutes for an honorary Boltonian to open the scoring. Fletcher had already had one sighter which flashed over the bar when Britt Assombalonga’s shot deflected kindly to him six yards out.
The former Canon Slade pupil, who had been with Bolton until the age of nine, refused to celebrate his tap-in but his restraint was not mirrored by the entertainment-starved Boro fans who chanted joyously: “We’ve scored a goal!”
They need not have been so cynical as another one was not far away.
Wanderers did muster one effort – Ameobi lashing a shot from an acute angle when a cross looked a better bet – but Boro’s electric speed on the counter was on another level.
The Whites had been on the attack moments before Boro a second, his ninth of the season. Ameobi’s cross to David Wheater was headed back into the six-yard box but rather than lump a clearance the Teessiders broke swiftly down the left and Mo Besic was able to slide in Fletcher who curled a delightful effort inside Remi Matthews’ far post.
A hat-trick was on and Fletcher came within a whisker when Ryan Shotton teed him up on the edge of the box and a stinging shot shaved the outside of the post.
Boro’s complete dominance brought a chorus of boos from the patches of home support, who had otherwise been understandably quiet.
There had been an air of quiet resignation about the whole stadium through the course of the day and it was mirrored in the way Wanderers went about their business. The tempo was sedate, the urgency just wasn’t there.
Fletcher clearly fancied a third and got a couple of opportunities before the break.
Matthews spilled John Obi-Mikel’s free kick with the striker lurking but just managed to regather the ball before he swept it towards goal.
Boro were in cruise control and slicing through with virtually every attack. Fletcher was having a field day and a clever exchange with Assombalonga nearly brought a hat-trick, but for the assistant’s flag.
There were more boos from Bolton’s fans at the break, but in truth they were as half-hearted as the football which preceded them.
There was a low-key start to the second half, although Wanderers did at least press a bit higher up the pitch to give supporters something to get behind.
Mark Beevers steered an O’Neil corner a yard wide of the post – which was something approximating a chance – but Boro soon started to create openings too.
Fletcher had a snap-shot straight at Matthews and Assombalonga wasted two chances by trying to chip a shot over the Bolton keeper rather than keep things simple, albeit his blushes were spared on the second occasion by the assistant’s flag.
Jonny Howson tested Matthews with a well-drilled free kick and then had another pot-shot a few moments later to keep some sort of momentum going for the visitors.
Parkinson sent on Oztumer with 20 minutes to go in a spell where Wanderers had started to ask a few more questions. Connell began to spray passes around and Noone was finally able to start running at his full-back.
Chances remained elusive, however, and there was always a feeling that Boro had an extra gear if they really wanted one.
Wanderers had a few brief openings to make things interesting, even though it would have been barely deserved.
Besic was dispossessed on the edge of the Bolton box by Oztumer but the substitute rather hurried his pass to Noone, and the chance to hit on the counter was gone.
Oztumer also had a shot blocked well by Daniel Ayala after Pawel Olkowski cut a cross back from the by-line.
The game rather ambled towards full-time, Boro fans possibly left feeling their side could have pressed for more. Had a snap shot from Ameobi crept under Daren Randolph, some nerves may even have crept in.
Wanderers’ first shot on target of the night was celebrated noisily and rather ironically by the smattering of home fans who had stuck around to the bitter end.
Ameobi went even closer in stoppage time, whipping a shot against the bar with virtually the last kick of the game.
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