Though the possession stats remained high, players appeared isolated on the swathes of empty turf. The attacking football Ian Evatt craved did appear in fleeting glimpses, but it was all-too-often after the game had been lost and opposition teams began to sit in and defend.
It was rightly questioned whether this set of players could go out and take a game by the scruff of the neck, and impose the authority we had all heard about, but seldom seen.
On Saturday afternoon such a performance finally arrived, and due credit should go to a young manager who has taken plenty of flak for picking one of the bravest line-ups in recent memory.
When the team to face Leyton Orient was announced at 2pm, you could hear the collective puff of cheeks from the Bolton fans who wondered whether Evatt had gone too gung-ho, or been taking selection tips from one of his predecessors, Owen Coyle.
With attacking quartet Eoin Doyle, Nathan Delfouneso, Arthur Gnahoua and Lloyd Isgrove all crowbarred into the starting 11, it looked like being a busy afternoon indeed for the central midfield pairing of George Thomason and Keiran Lee.
But what we got was a display more compact and resolute than any this season at home, with the possible exception of the televised win against Salford City in November.
On this occasion, the Whites pressed in number, passes were short and punchy, and while it could be argued that a more ruthless opponent would have exploited some of the space which appeared in midfield, this was also a day where Bolton’s back four looked in no mood to give away soft goals.
A day shy of his 35th birthday, Alex Baptiste returned to the team as one of six changes, producing an unfussy performance reminiscent of the days when centre-halves did not have to be ball carriers. Ricardo Santos – who has proven quite capable in possession this season as part of a back three – also looked right at home in an old fashioned flat back four.
This was a blustery, icy day by Winter Hill, one for strong spirits and brave hearts, and while they have been in constant question for the last five months, it is heartening to know that Wanderers can dig deep in this fashion when they need to.
There was a sense of déjà vu in the first half, which once again went by scoreless. Nathan Delfouneso missed a seemingly easy chance in the middle of the goal, teed up by the rampant Gnahoua, and talk at the break centred entirely on how much Bolton would live to regret it.
Other half-chances came and went. Lloyd Isgrove failed to get a touch on another low cross from Gnahoua, while ex-Liverpool keeper Lawrence Vigouroux pushed a vicious striker from Eoin Doyle over the bar.
We had seen this story before. The depressingly familiar pattern normally goes that after such a period of dominance – if such a thing exists at 0-0 – opposing sides seize an advantage just after the half-time interval.
Right on cue, the O’s found an extra gear. Hector Kyprianou forced a save out of Matt Gilks, Dan Kemp sent a shot just over the bar and Ruel Sotriou glanced James Brophy’s cross inches wide of the post, knowing he should have opened the scoring. And it was at that point a potentially defining moment arrived for Bolton.
Few fans would have had Harry Brockbank down as first goal-scorer but for a precious few moments it looked like he had a legitimate claim for the game’s opener.
Delfouneso did well to shift the ball on the left and cross low to the far post, and though replays showed it was defender Brophy, and not Brockbank, who got the telling touch, the fact Bolton had finally seized an advantage felt important.
Moments later, Gnahoua again raided deep into Orient territory and the ball sat up for Doyle on the edge of the box, the Irishman doing superbly to keep his shot under control and arrowing it into the bottom corner.
Doyle becomes the first Bolton player since Gary Madine and Josh Vela in 2018 to move into double figures and though he has had better games this season, his ability to make that sort of strike look effortless is exactly why he remains so important to the Bolton cause.
Another Doyle header was scrambled off the line by Vigouroux moments later as Wanderers showed little inclination to sit back and defend their two-goal lead.
Whether defensive responsibilities are part of Gnahoua’s repertoire remains up for debate but the winger showed over 90 minutes that in this sort of mood, he can be more than just an impact substitute.
Head down, bombing forward, the former Macclesfield Town man would have had fans roaring for more in the stands – but if Gnahoua carries on in this fashion, they might yet have a chance to see him in the flesh.
If there was a negative to the second half, it is that Bolton did not completely kill the game off, continuing to create and waste opportunities right up to the end.
Substitute Zach Elbouzedi was chief culprit, twice getting a clear sight of goal only for indecision to be his downfall.
Evatt was also able to bring on Declan John for a delayed debut, the Welshman surely due to play a significant part in the second half of the campaign.
The margin of victory could, and should have been as emphatic as that at Brisbane Road in October, an equally mucky and muddy day where Bolton’s character was truly brought into question. But with two tough games at Mansfield Town and Salford City to come in the next week it is vitally important that Evatt’s side have put some points on the board and proved to themselves that this change of system can work.
For now there should be no forecasts for the future, no pondering ‘what if’ nor pontificating on the points which can be gained between now and May. This group of players, and their manager, need to prove themselves all over again. With more of the same, it is still possible.
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