As fans logged on or tuned in from home for the first competitive football in 27 long weeks there was an undeniable excitement, even if it failed to reach the sterile environment which is football behind closed doors.
It was as surreal a start to any season in Bolton’s history – an entirely new team wrestling with a completely new identity, rattling around a cavernous stadium in virtual silence.
But while Bradford’s fans will have enjoyed watching their plucky side win away from home for the first time since October, Bolton’s audience was left feeling more introspective about the months ahead.
Defeat on the day will certainly dent Evatt’s pride. As layers of the squad were slowly added in the last few months some had built his team up in their mind to be invincible; foolishly so.
The manager’s off-the-cuff remark about winning the Carabao Cup spoke more about the winning mentality he wanted in his dressing room than any serious silverware ambition – but nevertheless the League Two title favourites stumbling on the opening weekend will have raised a smile among some of their divisional rivals. It remains to be seen who will be left laughing in May.
It is an immensely ambitious target to build a promotion-worthy team from scratch, even when Wanderers’ resources can extend to bringing in some of the division’s top players and give them access to top-level recruitment data.
This display showed up some of the human factors that no algorithm in the land can allow for, and on such things success and failure could hinge.
An empty stadium presents a psychological challenge, particularly against a team as energetic and as Stuart McCall’s Bantams.
Wanderers followed the Evatt blueprint closely, building attacks up patiently from the back, making good choices through midfield, particular with the ever-available Tom White. But for the most part they struggled to find the incisive ball when they most needed one, leaving front two Nathan Delfouneso and Eoin Doyle to retreat deeper and deeper to get involved.
Bradford’s formation may have matched up with Bolton but their style of play was infinitely more simplistic. They looked to exploit the space in behind wing-backs Gethin Jones and Liam Gordon and were not afraid to go direct when circumstances called for a less intricate approach.
Wanderers’ more clinical, considered football clicked into gear on occasion and it was those silky slivers which made another first round exit in the League Cup little more than an inconvenience.
It must be said Bradford were well worth a half-time lead, having brought out two great saves from Billy Crellin in the opening 45 minutes before finally edging ahead through Lee Novak. The goal came from exactly the sort of ball they had tried time and again – Callum Cooke racing into space behind Gordon and putting in a low cross side-footed home by Lee Novak, who had stolen a yard on two Bolton defenders.
Wanderers did hit the woodwork when Ricardo Santos clipped a cross-shot which glanced the crossbar and Delfouneso had one effort parried away by Richard O’Donnell at his near post.
Such highlights were rare, though, and for all their possession Bolton were making it easy for the visiting back three up to the break.
That changed almost immediately after the restart. A gorgeous through ball from Santos found Delfouneso and his low cross was cleared into the path of Antoni Sarcevic, who blasted home his first goal for the club from eight yards out.
Under normal circumstances, that goal would have hit the net in front of a packed North Stand and ignited the familiar noise we once called the Reebok Roar.
Though Sarcevic’s goal was celebrated wildly around kitchen tables, front rooms and garden patios, it had little motivating effect on Evatt’s side. Indeed, when they should have been pressing on for a second only the goal-scorer and captain really looked in the right frame of mind.
Sarcevic went close again with a curling shot but attacking shape of the team started to look ragged and with Doyle increasingly desperate to get involved against his former club, the calm order Evatt required was suddenly out of kilter.
Ali Crawford’s introduction did not really have the desired effect, nor did the arrival of Shaun Miller, the striker announced just 90 minutes before kick-off.
Evatt was forced to change his formation after Bradford had gone ahead. Paudie O’Connor was offered the freedom of the UniBol to swing a deep ball in towards sub Harry Pritchard, who with the words of manager McCall bellowing from the touchline to “head it,” did exactly that, nudging a fine finish past Crellin.
Admitting some of his senior stars had been below par, the Wanderers boss was clearly perturbed that he was left explaining a defeat on his first competitive outing as Bolton boss.
Thankfully, there was scope for rationality as this was ‘just’ a cup competition. Tuesday night’s EFL Trophy match against Crewe will also offer some scope for flexibility and Evatt may choose to put the likes of Miller, Crawford, Andy Tutte, Bright Amoateng and Co in for a serious dress rehearsal in the hope it will give him more serious selection problems next weekend against Forest Green.
That football is back in any form is a blessing. And though Bolton fans could not sit back in their armchair on Saturday night and bask in the winning feeling, being able to talk about offside traps, corners and formations again feels long overdue.
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