Lloyd Isgrove’s first-half strike was enough to settle a tense game – with nerves contributing to both sides missing a raft of chances they would have ordinarily gobbled up.
Bolton have not been beaten in an evening game in League Two this season and they once again showed what a terrifically hard-working side they have become.
Wanderers has been sluggish at the weekend but they could hardly afford to miss a step early on as the game started off at breakneck speed.
Salford’s top scorer Ian Henderson sliced an effort wide, bringing the Whites immediately to their senses like a dose of smelling salts. And for the next 25 minutes they played some of their best, high tempo football of the season.
Time on the ball was measured in milliseconds. The dry pitch meant every first touch had to be a good one as both sides rattled into every challenge with every bit of intensity you would expect from a game between two of the pre-season promotion favourites.
Once Bolton got themselves in shape, Eoin Doyle could have scored a hat-trick in 10 manic minutes. The Irishman got on the end of crosses from Isgrove and Gethin Jones but, for once, failed to supply the killer touch.
One crazy scramble, where Kieran Lee also appeared to get in Doyle’s way, even saw him squirming on the floor trying to head home from six inches off the ground.
Dapo Afolayan looked up for the game from the first whistle. He teased and harried the Salford defenders, switching wings with Isgrove midway through the half. The West Ham youngster is surely not far away from his first Bolton goal, and had two decent efforts to worry Vaclav Hladky with the scores still level.
Wanderers fully deserved their lead when it finally arrived. Isgrove wriggled free to get some space just inside the box and almost passed the ball into the bottom corner.
Whether it was a cross or a pass, nobody cared. What mattered was that Bolton had something to show for their dominance.
Salford then woke from their own slumber as Henderson began to find pockets of space around the penalty box. He raced on to a clever angled ball from Brandon Thomas-Asante and looked for all the world like slotting the ball past Matt Gilks – but like Doyle at the other end, found his normally razor-sharp finishing skills had eluded him at the crucial moment.
Wanderers may have complained that referee Alan Young played a poor advantage a few moments earlier. The Bedfordshire official then started to lose control of the game completely as tempers flared in either dugout.
One booking dished out to MJ Williams was a real head-scratcher and left Ian Evatt hopping around demanding answers from the fourth official.
Even on the way back down the tunnel ref Young called Afolayan back for some pushing and shoving on his way past the Salford players. The second half looked like it would come down to who kept their discipline.
The home side made a double switch at half-time and had the better of the early play. A big shout for a penalty was turned down when Gilks came to claim a high looping ball and ended up falling over the top of Henderson – who made the most of the contact.
The warring continued in the technical areas, with the fourth official under constant question from both sets of coaching staff.
Henderson’s wastefulness followed him into the second period, heading wide from a good cross by Ibou Touray. Moments later, he nearly got a helping hand from Williams as a dangerous ball was whipped into the box and the Bolton midfielder found himself facing his own goal. Gilks was glad to see the touch directed straight at him.
Wanderers had a hopeful shout for a penalty as they constructed a rare attack, Doyle claiming his shirt had been pulled by Jordan Turnbull.
Otherwise it was tense stuff, Ricardo Santos making a goal-saving challenge right in front of his own goal as Henderson wound up to shoot, then seconds later producing a perfect header to stop Richie Towell’s cross from reaching Ash Hunter.
Wanderers waited patiently to see if they could land the killer blow. Thomason and Isgrove’s superb counter press fashioned a chance for Lee, whose shot was deflected narrowly wide.
Doyle’s night ended in frustration, subbed for Shaun Miller, but not before he had scooped another presentable opportunity over the bar after some excellent work from Isgrove. On another night, Bolton’s top scorer would have been celebrating joining the 20-goal club.
Wanderers had defensive heroes all over the pitch at the Peninsula Stadium but nowhere more so than in full-back Gethin Jones, who made a handful of vital blocks in the final few minutes to keep Salford at bay.
The tension was palpable as the board showed four minutes of added time but the smattering of Bolton fans who had gathered outside could be heard loud and proud.
To sum it up, Nathan Delfouneso threw himself in front of another Henderson effort in the final stages as the home side threw absolutely everything forward to preserve their unbeaten run.
In the end, the cheers on the Bolton bench said it all. This might just have been the biggest result of the Whites’ whole season.
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