In little more than six weeks Ian Evatt’s side has transformed from one of the EFL’s biggest underachievers to the in-form club, one now eyeing automatic promotion as a realistic target, rather than a flight of fancy.
In amassing an 11-game unbeaten run, Ricardo Santos has cemented his credentials as one of the top defenders in League Two – a claim which would have been laughed out of town during the Whites’ ropey start to fourth tier football at the tail end of 2020.
It seemed at the time that no club was struggling with pandemic life more than Bolton, a cavernous empty stadium representing a nice day out for opposition teams, a huge and loyal fanbase left grumbling behind their keyboards, a young manager with big plans and big questions asked of his ability to meet them.
Then the music started. Some good business in January reignited some hope, not only among the supporters, but more importantly inside Evatt’s squad. Senior players who had been questioning the quality around them started to see the germ of a team which could climb the table.
Santos led the way, his performances becoming increasingly assured, and an unbeaten run coincided with Wanderers switching their pre-match tunes, replacing the traditional walk-on tune of the 633 Squadron with the thumping base of Kasabian. A trivial move, perhaps, but one which looks to have done the trick.
Slowly, the volume has been turned up on Bolton’s season.
“It was hard to watch what was happening,” Santos told The Bolton News.
“We knew we were better than we were showing at the time, but nobody was in a good mood – the players were down and didn’t like the abuse we were getting, the fans were down because the results were not good enough. We were spiralling.
“You need a break and in January we brought in some new players and it changed. We had to draw that line. And now you look back at that time and use it as motivation because we don’t want to go back there.
“Now, you walk into the training ground and people are having a laugh, there’s banter. I look on social media and read all the funny stuff people are saying, it is amazing.
“The first thing I do every morning is go in and put some music on to get everyone going, that’s my job.
“You still get a few moaners who don’t like the music – but I just turn it up, you can’t hear them then.”
For those who like to know these things, Santos’s playlist currently comprises of “old school R&B, stuff like Usher and Jennifer Lopez” – and it too seems to be bringing the best out of a group of players hitting form at exactly the right time.
Confidence is high but, Santos points out, not at a level which could see Wanderers take their eye off the metaphorical ball.
The 25-year-old knows only too well from his own playing career what a loss in focus can do, and he is happy to recall his experiences at former club Peterborough United as a cautionary warning.
“At the minute everything is great and I think the only time in my career it has been this good was when I was about 20 at Peterborough,” he said.
“I’d broken through and played about 30-odd games in the first team and feeling like I am feeling now, I was never going to lose.
“I’d been playing non-league and it was the first time I was in a professional environment and looking back now, I didn’t take it seriously enough. There were lots of lads from London in the team and we’d have a great laugh, but I didn’t look after myself.
“If I had been more professional, taken that more seriously, I think I could have pushed on and played higher at that point in my career. But now I have a second chance with Bolton and I don’t want to make the same mistake again.”
Santos dropped down into the National League after leaving Peterborough in 2017, a spell he admits made him reconsider his own goals as a footballer. The chance to join Bolton last summer opened up an unexpected chance to climb the league again.
“When I was playing at Barnet, I have to be honest, I didn’t think I would get the chance to play at a club of this size,” he said. “When I came here I didn’t think ‘League Two’ I just looked at the stadium and the plans and thought ‘this is an opportunity to climb leagues’ and I didn’t even think twice about it. I was signing.
“It has taken a bit of time to click but there were a lot of new players in the squad at the start of the season, you have to remember that.
“You saw little parts when it went good but then there would be bad defending and mistakes, so that is where all the attention went.
“We just needed to settle down and follow what the manager wanted us to do. He was a great defender, played in the Premier League, so for me he has been great to learn from.”
After Saturday’s home game against Walsall there will be just 10 games for Bolton to get to where they want to be.
Their recent revival has offered up a chance that few supporters believed would be possible at the turn of the year, and in Evatt’s own words “got people talking about Bolton Wanderers once again.”
To read too much into the team’s newfound positive press would be a mistake, Santos insists, and the defender hopes his music can drown out the outside noise, for now.
“We’re far away but we’re close, if you get what I mean,” he said. “We can’t get carried away with the good things. The boys are happy, and there is a good energy in the team, but nobody can get ahead of themselves.
“I want to stay undefeated to the end. We have played all the teams now and we have got a few coming up against Forest Green and Newport, teams that are higher than us in the table, where we know we will have to be at our absolute best.
“I don’t think there is a team that is better than us when we play the way we have been playing, I honestly don’t. We just have to do everything we can to keep this.
“Bradford away should have been three points, Morecambe and Cheltenham at home should have been three points. We have dropped a few points where I think we could have done better.
“If we can keep that level then I do think we can go up.”