Like a child’s Christmas toy, the Whites can be a joy to watch whizz around when the switch in is the ‘on’ position. Their attacking line-up is among the best in the division and all but a small handful of players in the squad look infinitely happier playing in the opposition half.
But when that switch is sent the other way, they can be truly awful, almost not fit for purpose. And that is what was unwrapped in crucial spells at the UniBol on Saturday afternoon against Port Vale.
There is no element of control about Ian Evatt’s side, who often look incapable of playing their possession brand of football at anything other that full pelt.
Even during the five-game winning run they had compiled in recent weeks their policy looked labour intensive. If Bolton are not playing flat-out, then they are not playing at all.
Without the injured Andy Tutte the midfield lacked a defensive layer. Evatt’s decision to bring in youngster George Thomason backfired, with the teenager brushed aside by a workmanlike Vale engine room, perversely led by a Bolton Wanderers fan, Luke Joyce.
John Askey’s Vale had been wobbling in recent weeks, losing all five of their league games since being dumped out of the FA Cup by non-league King’s Lynn. But they won this match in the middle of the park – suffocating Bolton’s main creative fulcrum Ali Crawford – and then making sure the ball was worked out to the Whites’ most vulnerable spots, either side of the penalty area.
Wanderers’ players had been instructed not to allow Vale space to pepper the penalty box with crosses, as the excellent David Worrall, Cristiano Montano and Manny Oyeleke did so readily.
But from the opening minute it was clear to anyone sat in the cavernous empty stadium that the gaps between both wing-backs, Gethin Jones and Peter Kioso, and their respective centre-half was much too wide. The door was opened, and, my word, did Vale take advantage.
Oyekele started the rout, prodding home Montano’s cross from the Vale left, and three minutes later Leon Legge headed home Worrall’s cross, with Wanderers looking static after a well-worked corner routine.
Two down and barely warmed-up, Bolton sparked into attacking life when Gethin Jones raced into the box and after his first shot was blocked, his second was neatly placed in the bottom corner for his first senior goal in professional football.
Matt Gilks had not been on the losing side since replacing Billy Crellin at the end of October in goal. This week, however, his constant stream of commentary was punctuated by spells of serious pressure, and some decent saves to deny Montano and Worrall.
Back the pendulum swung to Bolton. Eoin Doyle looked sharp from the outset, testing Scott Brown, and there was hope that despite a dreadful start, Evatt’s side could easily get back into the game if they could find a way of getting the ball to their front men.
Nathan Delfouneso’s effectiveness in the first half was limited by a back or hamstring problem, which required periodic treatment, but between him and Doyle there seemed enough firepower to cause the visitors problems.
Four minutes from the interval, a decisive moment. Ricardo Santos was levered off the ball by Devante Rodney, chasing to make up his mistake and attempting a clumsy-looking shoulder barge inside the box which was deemed a foul by ref Carl Boyeson. The penalty was blasted home by Tom Conlon, and the madness rolled on.
Any hopes Bolton had of getting back into the game were obliterated inside the first five minutes of the second half.
Thomason had shown some nice touches on the ball but neither he nor his much more experienced midfield partner, Antoni Sarcevic, was able to lay a glove on their opposite numbers.
Worrall was afforded more space to pick a pass out for Montano, who clipped his shot over the advancing Gilks, and Vale were four to the good.
That became five when the ex-Bury winger Worrall cut in from the right to drive another shot past a sluggish Bolton keeper with 40 minutes of the game still remaining.
Record books were being checked when Nathan Smith headed a sixth on the hour mark, capitalising on yet more open-door defending in the Bolton box.
Evatt responded with a statement-making quadruple substitution. And though it can be argued that the replacements made an impact, reducing the deficit by two, the visitors were able to coast through the last half hour with no real threat to their points haul.
Doyle got a goal his performance thoroughly warranted. A smart finish from the edge of the box which takes him to seven goals for the season.
Isgrove volleyed in a third to cap off a bright performance off the bench. Ronan Darcy, who had a hand in the goal, will also feel he did himself no harm with the minutes he was afforded.
For Bolton to turn the tap on in the last 30 minutes felt like a slap in the face. There have been precious few times – even in such an inconsistent start to the season – where it felt beneficial to have no fans in the building, but this was one of them.
Crawford’s inability to get into this game was a concern. The Scot has been too peripheral a character for a few weeks now and with Isgrove pushing hard it would be easy to see him dropped next weekend.
Wanderers have to find a way of mixing an attacking brand of football with some degree of sensibility. That is especially the case in central midfield, where Tutte’s absence was felt more than anyone could have predicted, and on both wings where Kioso and Jones needed to put the shackles on a touch.
Whether Evatt has a replacement in his current ranks is a matter of much debate. Many supporters applauded his bravery before kick-off in naming Thomason but the harsh realities of senior football in League Two were there for all to see. Decent in possession, the youngster just lacked the physical bite that would have given his side a foothold in midfield.
Brandon Comley and Tom White played a part from the bench – the latter clipping the bar with a long-range shot that, had it gone in, would have made it 10 different goal-scorers on the day – but neither has done enough to command a regular start just yet.
Evatt has already talked about strengthening in the January window and 90 minutes of frantic football against Vale showed up areas of concern with bright neon lights. Heaven forbid something happened to Doyle, by the way.
If this game were replayed 100 times we might never see the same score-line, and that has been the problem for Wanderers all season. You just never know what you are going to get.
Somehow, some way, Bolton need to gain some control because without it, there is no telling how this season is going to end up.
On the flip of a coin, the Whites could embark on another five-match winning streak and this could all be forgotten. And they are capable.
Equally, the jitters could set in and in the immortal words of Mud, it could be very Lonely This Christmas.
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