It may be a reflection on us, our inflated view of our club, but there are few fixtures in this league where going into it we feel very much the underdogs. But this was one of them. Anything from the game would be a bonus. We did get something and on top put in a performance which gave greater signs of the way that we assume Jones wants us to play the rest of the season, involving less backward/square passing but rather getting the ball upfield faster and looking to press in that area. We did I think catch out a rather complacent – and let’s not forget weakened (it was nice to not have to confront Santos for example) – Bolton, especially in the first half, and deserved our point. Three - via a late winner from a fierce Aneke shot - would have been wonderful, but each time Bolton went ahead or drew level we feared they would go on to win the game, which would have been cruel. So we grab the point and move on.
The team contained surprises. Having substituted him during Tuesday night’s game, Jones opted to drop May from the starting line-up; and there was no place in the squad for Bakinson, or for Watson(L), while Ramsay’s absence was assumed to have been down to him not being available. Instead, in a 3-5-2, in front of Isted would be Edmunds-Green, Jones and Thomas, with Watson(T) and debutant Small as the wing-backs. Dobson would be partnered by the returning Coventry, with Anderson kept in the more forward position, and Ladapo back to start alongside Kanu. With Camara, Campbell, May and Aneke on the bench we had plenty of forward options, less in the way of defensive cover, just Gillesphey and Edun, for a game in which we would surely need our back five to be as resolute as possible.
I have to say the first 15 minutes of the game I wasn’t fully concentrating as there was a coq au vin which had to be prepared for the evening. From a distance it seemed as though Small’s first contribution might have been to let them in for an early chance but he (and we) got away with that one. But once I’d settled in it didn’t take long for us to fall behind, to another example of our defensive weakness. There seemed no apparent danger from a throw on their left side, but the guy was allowed the space to send in what you have to say was a ball right on the money, into the near post area inviting someone to get on the end of it. That someone should have been a defender, most obviously Thomas, but he’d started to move out and was caught on the wrong side as their forward advanced, unable to make a meaningful challenge. All their guy had to do was get something on it to divert the ball past Isted.
It was disappointing after what seemed to have been a reasonable start. But we didn’t have long to dwell on it as just a few minutes later we were level. Small received the ball on our left, checked inside, and sent in a peach of a cross. It cleared their first defender and seemed tailor-made for Ladapo to head home unmarked. He managed to get nothing on it, but with their keeper having to cover for that prospect the ball just continued on its journey beyond him and into the net. One of those when you start to think that after all it might be your day and a goal on his debut for Small.
Bolton were stung, but still seemed to be playing within themselves, not being able to dictate play as our midfield did the hard yards, even if it involved a yellow card or two (usually for kicking the ball away). I had noticed that when Bolton scored the celebrations were rather more along the lines of normal order being restored rather than jubilation, and our equaliser seemed like an affront to them. If that was the case, when we went ahead before the break, once again in rather fortuitous circumstances, added injury to insult.
Kanu managed to make an interception in a good position and his attempt to play the ball across was put behind for a corner. This was played short and then a low ball was sent across the area, looking like a training ground move. If it was something went wrong in communication as nobody initially moved out for the shot. Instead it continued on until Jones met it on the turn, sending in a shot which went between or under a few and just beyond their keeper’s dive.
Glory be, this was not in the script. But if anything the break for half-time benefited Bolton as they were able to regroup, with probably some choice words exchanged in the dressing room. They made a substitution and came out for the second half in clearly more determined fashion. With greater intensity we found it more difficult to clear our lines effectively and it wasn’t especially surprising that after just six minutes of the second period they equalised.
Their guy received the ball on the edge of our area, to be confronted by Dobson. He moved to go on the outside, checked back, outside again, checked back etc. Finally Dobson bought the dummy and seemed to lose his footing. That enabled the guy to do what he had wanted all along, to shift the ball onto his right foot with the space ahead opened up. He was able to pick his spot, curling the effort beyond Isted. They would say an excellent piece of skill; for our part, as pointed out on CATV, the ballet between the two went on long enough for another Charlton player to have moved up to assist Dobson by cutting off the inside channel.
In the period after that equaliser Bolton threatened to put us to the sword. Kanu and Coventry picked up yellows, adding to the list (Jones, Dobson) – and by now raising concerns that sooner or later someone would get a second. So it was to most people’s surprise when just past the hour we took the lead again.
Kanu was again involved, this time intercepting to somehow get the ball across. That was cleared but we recycled it and a cross to the far post saw an ariel contest which saw their guy land, evidently, on his backside, seemingly rather painfully. He then tried to con the ref by feigning a head injury, rather giving himself away by holding his arms out in appeal. We, justifiably, kept playing. Small got in a scuffed shot which dropped for Kanu, who hit it on the turn in off the post. Bolton protested, but the ref got that one right.
Bolton responded and upped the pace again and we did start to look tired, the focus moving to when Jones might decide on replacements. If he was making up his mind the move came too late to prevent us conceding again. With some slick passing they created space for a guy to get to the byline on our left side; and when the low cross came in for the second time in the game our defenders were behind the play and another forward was left to complete a tap-in from close range.
Still 20 minutes of normal time left on the clock. Jones made a triple substitution, with Gillesphey, Camara and Aneke coming on for Coventry, Dobson and Ladapo, with Edmunds-Green moving forward into midfield and Anderson dropping back. Taking off both Dobson and Coventry may have been influenced by their yellow cards (Coventry had just committed another foul which fortunately had gone unpunished) but it was also a vote of confidence in these others to see out the job.
Bolton did almost get a fourth as the guy who scored their second found himself in a similar position, only this time to make a mess of the shot. On 85 minutes May was introduced for the understandably knackered Kanu, time enough for him to pick up a yellow for time-wasting; but when the board went up it showed nine extra minutes, too long for comfort. But we had the best chance to win the game in this period as Camara played in on for Aneke. The angle was tight, but he sent in a fierce shot which looked goal-bound until their keeper got a hand to it to turn it over. There was some panic defending for us, some injury time-outs for Isted, but we did manage to avoid another last-gasp goal against.
The point and the performance all constituted positives, although I don’t really buy the ‘best performance of the season’. I kept thinking back to the November draw away at Portsmouth. Had a check and just three of the 11 that started that game started yesterday. So I’d say it was the best this new team has played. The opposition, though missing some key players, was very strong and benefited from far greater coordination. We matched that with effort, in all areas of the pitch, married to a simple but effective game-plan, with Anderson of far more use in the advanced position against opponents such as Bolton than against Lincoln, who were happy to concede possession. The criticisms were allowing them two tap-ins, also that of our six yellow cards three were for kicking the ball away; you’d have thought that once the first was given for that we would have learnt the lesson.
There’s going to need to be the same level of desire and drive against Portsmouth and Derby – and of course thereafter. I don’t think the choices Jones is making now, in terms of personnel and tactics, are set in stone. We wait to see what he opts for when the emphasis switches away from getting something from the game to getting the victories we need to stay up.