Cold, wet, Tuesday nights, cramped away dressing rooms and lower league opponents were once described as ‘Kryptonite’ for Ian Evatt’s Wanderers, but now perhaps just the fuel for success?
Since the last international break some big challenges have been met, and passed, by a team now starting to fulfil its own prophecy.
There has always been a great deal of pressure on Bolton to return to a level of football which reflects their rich history but convincing a large fanbase that this was the team that could make the next step has not been a simple task.
Evatt and his players have been unshakeable in their belief that they can claim a top two spot by May.
But concerns over squad quality and depth, goal-scoring prowess, a lack of leadership, the team’s ability to match direct football or deeper-lying opponents have all been voiced at one time or another, and not completely without basis.
When Wanderers were beaten 3-1 at home by Carlisle United on October 7, a result which left them sixth for a fortnight and facing a particularly strong backlash, Evatt argued that his team should be judged on the next block of fixtures, once a handful of previously injured players were back to full fitness.
He noted a reaction on the training ground, comparing it to the positive feeling he had before the Papa Johns Trophy final in April. And then, suddenly, through a series of tricky and bruising midweek ties, the most consistent spell of his time in charge was created.
The win at a sodden Edgeley Park on Tuesday night might not have mattered much in the grand scheme, securing as it did top spot and a home tie in the knockout round. It did, however, highlight a strength which has emerged that is present in most promoted teams.
Bolton have won seven games on the bounce, shifting their personnel as they bounced between league and cup.
They have altered tactical approach, using Will Forrester when more defensive mettle was needed, or switching Josh Dacres-Cogley to the left to combat Wycombe’s threats from out wide. Aaron Morley has often been alternated with Paris Maghoma, depending on what type of pressing strategy was needed and what space would be available in midfield, and Evatt has successfully managed to see out results with the use of fresh strikers from the bench.
Jon Dadi Bodvarsson described it as “relentlessness” – and for the past seven games, the last five of which have also brought clean sheets, it has felt so much more convincing.
Evatt has often railed against the criticism his team received, protecting his players and potentially strengthening the tight-knit mentality which has aided the winning run. Many inside the camp would claim the closeness which exists in the squad is actually their biggest strength as the club looks to return to the Championship for the first time under current ownership.
Rarely short of a word of praise for his dressing room, or for a chance to bolster confidence, the Wanderers boss is enthusiastic about a group he feels is not yet close to reaching its potential.
“This is the best team since I have been here,” he told The Bolton News.
“That is not saying we have cracked it because there is a load of work and improvement to come. But, as a group, their off-the-field stuff and what I am also seeing on the pitch, it is the best I have seen so far.
“I do think they can improve and tighten up on, keeping them in one piece is vital, but they are really focussed. I see their attitude to games and to hard work and I get excited to coach them because they take on the information and they apply it.
“You see George Thomason (at Stockport) who was absolutely brilliant, Aaron Morley as well, we have got a very good squad of players. But crucially, there is a lot we still need to do before we achieve our ambitions and goals. We are miles away from what we want to be, but I am definitely pleased with what I am seeing.”
A glance ahead at the fixtures to come before the end of the year illustrates that there are some potentially bigger challenges to tackle, most notably midweek away trips to Oxford United and Portsmouth, the two clubs sitting in first and second position at present.
Bolton have clawed back points over the last few weeks, and also put themselves in prime position in the knockout competitions, where the dream of becoming the first club to successfully defend the EFL Trophy – now the Bristol Street Motors Trophy – still lingers as an interesting side-project.
Evatt, quite literally, had a box-seat as he watched Bolton end Stockport’s 13-game winning run, courtesy of Bodvarsson’s two second-half goals.
The succession of chances missed in the second half showed why this is a team which still has flaws, or at least room to improve. But more than 1,500 supporters travelled in the hope they would see a performance that would erase memories of a dire night on the same ground in 2021, where Evatt’s Wanderers were knocked off their perch in the FA Cup in front of the TV cameras.
“It never looked like we would drop or dip, we played with the right aggression and intensity whether we had the ball or not,” the manager said.
“We created so many opportunities, we know we still need to develop that ruthless streak. And we know it is there, the players want to do it, but it is just the execution.
“It can happen sometimes and credit to their goalkeeper, he had a great game.
“Their attitude to this type of game is there for all to see. And our crowd deserve that. When you have 1,500 or more turning out for a game like this, on a night like this, and sing like they did, they absolutely deserve the best we can give them.
“We applied ourselves correctly and hopefully they have gone home happy and a few ghosts have been exorcised.”
Since the turn of 2023, no team in the Football League has taken more points than Wanderers.
Excluding play-off games against Barnsley, the Whites’ record stands at 39 games played, 24 won, seven drawn and eight losses. A total of 79 points has been taken out of 117, which just exceeds Evatt’s oft-quoted two-point-per-game target for automatic promotion.
There is little margin for error but Bolton have now happened upon the sort of run associated with teams who get the job done. The previous four Wanderers teams that had won seven games on the spin were Phil Parkinson’s promoted side of 2016/17, Sam Allardyce’s European qualifiers in 2004/05, Colin Todd’s title-winners of 1996/97 and Bruce Rioch’s White Hot legends of 1992/93 – exalted company indeed.
Having answered so many questions in the first few months of the season, Wanderers have just one big one remaining. Can they last the distance?
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