There remains plenty of time for Ian Evatt to turn around what he pledged would be a promotion tilt, a prediction backed-up by the bookies and every face which smiled back into the club’s camera and talked about the size of its ambition.
Back in the summer there was no reason to disbelieve that between the new head coach and the enigmatic head of football operations, Tobias Phoenix, Wanderers had indeed assembled a squad which could make this stint of Division Four football a brief one.
Algorithms, we heard, were used to sort which free agents were perfectly suited to Evatt’s brand of expansive football, which worked quite beautifully down the road at Barrow.
But whether maths is your strong suit or not, it does not take Rachel Riley to suss out that something has not added up for Wanderers since the competitive business began.
Evatt had called for positivity from his local press on the eve of the Newport game, rarely something which emerges from the lips of a man whose team is faring well. By 5pm on Saturday evening, however, he sat in the same seat to admit his players were being outworked, comparing their inconsistency to eating a bag of Revels. Quite the turnaround in 24 hours.
Surely every single person in town hopes this young, smart, and immensely likeable manager will get things right. But it is also fair to ask whether he has been given the right tools for the job?
As the previous man in the hotseat, Keith Hill, carefully explained last week, Wanderers’ owners, Football Ventures, decided at the turn of the year to go in a different footballing direction – one driven by data. Brentford were held up as the success story but, in truth, most modern clubs use analysts just as much, if not more, than scouts and coaches.
It was a stark departure for a club which had been hacked down to the bone by administrators and nefarious ownership but Bolton were not reinventing the recruitment wheel. Their decisions in the transfer market were still based on availability and price, and despite all the frowns from elsewhere, their budget was not enormous.
Head-turning deals for last season’s League Two top-scorer, Eoin Doyle, and team-of-the-year member, Antoni Sarcevic, plus the returning Ali Crawford raised the excitement stakes, quite possibly beyond where they should have been, in fact. Evatt’s own relentless winning mantra was exactly what the football-starved public of Bolton needed but as the pandemic bit deeper, so the sweet taste has soured.
Since the first ball was kicked against Bradford City in the Carabao Cup there has been a feeling that this squad is only halfway finished, or worse, only half as good as it was billed.
Fundamental issues in defence have contributed to confidence issues in attack. The fans’ finger of blame has been pointed at either penalty box on a weekly basis but as Tristan Abrahams rattled in two second-half goals on Saturday, it settled elsewhere – the dugout and the directors’ box.
Questions are quite rightly being asked about the mechanics of this summer’s recruitment and how it has contributed to the colossal mess served up at the UniBol.
Even the announcement of two more new signings, Lloyd Isgrove and Arthur Gnahoua, was curiously conducted 10 minutes before the team-sheets were handed in.
Bringing the summer turnaround to 19, and a week after Evatt had himself said free transfers could take too long to bring up to speed, their pair were put on the bench, rendering any ‘surprise’ aspect to their arrival all rather moot.
In reality, both Isgrove and Gnahoua will have trained with their team-mates, sat in front of the cameras and remarked on the size of the club well in advance of kick-off, leaving the timings looking all the stranger.
Given the state of the defending in the first 25 minutes, you could be forgiven for wondering if Bolton’s players had only been introduced in the pre-match warm-up.
Newport should have been a few goals to the good as Brandon Cooper, Liam Shephard and Scott Twine all had clear-cut chances to score, the latter only denied by a sprawling stop from Billy Crellin.
With Ryan Taylor deftly fronting up their attack and left-back Ryan Haynes proving unstoppable out wide, the Exiles ran rampant early on – much to their credit, given their midweek exertions to beat Watford in the cup.
Ali Crawford and Nathan Delfouneso briefly flickered into life before the break, getting into good areas close to goal but lacking some conviction in the end product.
The score was goalless, that much was a positive, but all around defensive alarm bells rang. Ricardo Santos looked off the pace, Liam Gordon and keeper Crellin failed to communicate, and even the dependable Gethin Jones looked vulnerable against a Newport side firmly on message.
In an attacking sense, things improved either side of half time. Crawford got himself on the ball, Doyle looked less isolated, Bolton’s possession was more progressive.
So, of course, that would be the time Newport chirped up with their first goal. A drive forward from Josh Labadie took him past Brandon Comley and when his shot was parried by Crellin, Abrahams was on it in a flash.
Should the keeper have pushed it further from goal? Quite possibly. Should defenders have reacted quicker? Most definitely.
Wanderers did offer a brief retort. It had been 200 days since a Bolton league goal was celebrated but James Brown was belting out again when Delfouneso turned in Gordon’s left-wing cross, the players turning to see the linesman had ruled it out for a handball.
The reaction said a lot. After the initial complaints aimed at ref Christopher Sarginson it was time for Bolton to use the frustration for good. Evatt rallied from the side, Doyle did so from the centre circle as play restarted, but elsewhere, silence.
Pandemic football is a desolate place. You should not be able to hear traffic, doors closing or the on-field communication that is usually drowned out by the match-day buzz.
Evatt is a student of body language, and what he saw was not a team who had belief they were getting back into game.
Newport made sure. The rampaging Haynes was offered an easy route into the box by Jones, his shot parried in identical fashion by Crellin and tapped in by Abrahams. Around him, more statuesque defending, followed by more hands-on-hips.
Evatt’s triple substitution brought the two new signings into the mix, along with Andrew Tutte, and though a rescue job was well beyond them, they did at least ensure no further damage was done.
And so, 32 years after Wanderers had hammered Newport 6-0 to send them into non-league football and eventually out of business, the Welshmen held on to a result which briefly put Bolton into the bottom two. Alphabetical order does home in handy, apologies Grimsby.
Nobody seriously expects Bolton to be there in May. But as Evatt takes a team to Harrogate next weekend you have to wonder just how many times this club is going to smash its head on the bottom before it bounces back up for good.
New signings may routinely praise the size and history of Bolton Wanderers but teams like Newport won’t care a jot.
Something is not working for Evatt and in the wider Wanderers machine. Whatever algorithms got us to this stage need to be checked again.
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