The old Railway End of St Andrew’s holds some fond memories for Bolton fans, even in recent years. And when Dennis Politic blasted an equaliser 13 minutes from time it seemed another moment had been added to the list.
Sadly, the defensive sloppiness that accounted for Amadou Bakayoko’s third-minute opener came back around in the 90th minute, and Max Biamou’s late effort sent Bolton’s 1,000-strong travelling faithful back into irony mode.
It really shouldn’t be a laughing matter. Wanderers have 17 games left to negotiate in League One but in order to survive they require a change in form so fantastical you would need a team of scriptwriters from Marvel to dream it up.
Keith Hill believes 11 wins are needed, and Bolton’s last 11 took 70 games to collect. The manager and his players continue to make all the right noises and, to their credit, are not giving anything up without a fight. But in all honesty the rest of the campaign is an exercise in damage reduction.
It was easy to feel some sympathy after this defeat, even if it felt a little self-inflicted. Though you feared for Bolton in a haphazard opening 20 minutes in which Coventry could, and should, have scored more, their performance in the second half in particular was encouraging.
At the heart of it, two players at opposite ends of their careers. Politic looks the part – has the hero’s swagger, the silky touch, the hammer-like right foot, and since signing a contract extension with the Whites last month he has also started to affect games for longer. Some of that comes from the improved physical output that Hill has often mentioned, but you sense with the Romania-born winger that he is also revelling in the attention of those fans.
Though not an especially flashy or extroverted character off the pitch, Politic comes alive with the ball at his feet and regardless of the opposition this season, he has looked capable of causing problems.
Bolton’s other significant contributor on the day was Chris O’Grady. Though largely anonymous in a tepid first half the 34-year-old emerged after the interval in a bullish mood, causing havoc down the left side and eventually putting in the cross for Politic’s 77th minute equaliser.
Hill stuck with the 4-4-2 system that had worked well against Tranmere but found in the opening exchanges that his side were being out-foxed, particularly in midfield. O’Grady and Daryl Murphy looked peripheral figures, and Wanderers’ only real attacking threat came from Politic’s infrequent dribbles and the ever-willing overlap of full-back Brandon Fleming.
The Whites had gone behind after just a few minutes when Bakayoko slotted home from six yards – a move which had begun with Daryl Murphy’s misplaced pass on halfway.
Fankaty Dabo looked a class act on the Coventry right but had no right to expect the space he was given to cross. Bakayoko did the rest, having pulled into space off his marker, Toto Nsiala.
Wanderers’ sleepy start summed up the eerie atmosphere at Coventry’s temporary base. Effectively made homeless by the bickering over rents at the Rioch Arena, the club’s fans have been forced to decamp 17 miles down the road to Birmingham and, perhaps understandably, not in great number.
At times the echoes resembled a development squad game played in midweek – and every word could be heard from the Bolton bench as David Flitcroft and Julian Darby’s Lancastrian tones tried to spark players into life.
Remi Matthews’ command of his area could be questioned on the day but his shot-stopping continues to be top drawer. A near-post block to deny Callum O’Hare prevented Coventry from getting a further toe-hold in the game and the Bolton keeper made an equally impressive effort to push away a snap-shot from Liam Kelly.
Wanderers stabilised but their only serious chance of the first half was entirely of Politic’s creation. A mazy run which took the youngster past two players would have ended in another goal of the season contender – but Marko Marosi did well to get something on his shot, and the ball dribbled wide of goal.
The second half was a different animal. O’Grady was rampant down the left and after his cross was nearly bundled over the line by Daryl Murphy, Politic followed up with a shot that whistled over the bar.
Momentum was stalled somewhat when O’Hare and Nsiala clashed heads on halfway, stopping the game for several minutes. The Coventry man continued but despite his protests the Wanderers defender had to be substituted, Ryan Delaney making his debut off the bench.
O’Grady teed Daryl Murphy up for a header six yards from goal with 20 minutes left but the Irishman headed directly above keeper Marosi, giving him the chance to push the ball over the bar.
From the resulting corner Coventry countered and Bolton were indebted again to Matthews for a fine save from Jamie Allen’s effort.
Politic volleyed the leveller, again supplied by O’Grady’s left wing cross, sparking scenes of celebration reminiscent of that glorious FA Cup quarter-final, albeit on a much smaller scale.
O’Grady nearly capped off his own afternoon with a nice run past two players, his shot lashed just over the bar.
Substitute Biamou then supplied the sucker punch. He had already put an overhead kick just wide but as Wanderers failed miserably to clear a bouncing ball in their own penalty box he was not going to miss a second time.
Accustomed to such disappointments, the Bolton fans continued to sing. They feel the hurt, of course, but there is a general sense that people are pinning their hopes exclusively on next season being the start of the revival. Until then, what feels like a relegation roadshow will rumble on.