This one was always going to be tough. A great game to win, to close the gap on the top six and keep thoughts of a miracle alive, but a big ask in any circumstances against a team which had earlier in the season blown us away. As it was, an enforced two-week break and slip back down the league, through no fault of our own, probably increased the pressure to get a result, in the interests of momentum. In the end there were ifs and buts, especially the fact that even though Bolton had many other opportunities to score more their winner was a messy, unsatisfactory affair, but no real complaints. Bolton looked like a top-six team, if not top-two, and we looked like we are making strides in that direction but aren’t there yet.
The team saw four changes from the one which started against Barnsley, with new loanee Penney straight in for the immediately injured loanee Kane at left-back, Morgan back in for Payne, Blackett-Taylor back in for Campbell, and Bonne getting the nod as the central striker in place of Leaburn. The three missing out were all on the bench, with no sign there of Stockley, although according to the club site he has picked up a slight injury (whether his absence was at least in part due to transfer speculation remains to be seen). I thought it amounted to our strongest starting XI.
The first couple of minutes were not an advert for League One football (or football at any level), the ball being pinged around aimlessly by both teams. But before anything could settle Bolton took the lead. Ness challenged for the ball and initially the referee played on, only to bring things back for what he saw as a foul (it may have been but others of a similar nature were to be ignored). The free-kick was reasonably central but a decent distance, it would take something special to score from there you felt. It was. Curled just over the jumping wall and curved away from a despairing Maynard-Brewer, to hit the inside of the post and in. Perfectly struck and placed.
After that, although we threatened at times, with CBT and Rak-Sakyi both looking dangerous, the only surprise by the break was that Bolton hadn’t scored more. A second inside the first 10 minutes, after Ness and Penney had lost the ball and let their guy in, who squared it inside our box, was only averted by an excellent half-block from Maynard-Brewer and the ball rebounding off the bar. There were some desperate blocks inside the area, another shot from inside the box went (very) narrowly wide with Maynard-Brewer well beaten, then more blocks.
For us Blackett-Taylor as usual had his opposite number for pace and nearly made it count, Rak-Sakyi had a free header from a set piece but couldn’t get enough on it, and he also went on a good run beating a couple and cutting inside, only for the shot to not have enough on it to find the net. Bonne was struggling to get anything out of the immense Santos (him squaring up to Inniss at corners was a real contest) while Morgan and Fraser were not able to exert any control of midfield. Bolton looked stronger in most areas, winning and retaining possession much more frequently than us and playing it around in our defence to good effect.
As was stressed on Charlton TV at the break, the positive for us was that we were still in the game – and things can happen. It was hard to see what Holden might do to balance things up, presumably Leaburn would come on at some point and perhaps we could stiffen up in midfield. In the first half Bolton had 12 shots, five on target, against three and two for us.
Something at the start of the second half did happen. The kick-off went back to Maynard-Brewer, who knocked it long. We competed and Fraser came away with the ball. He played it into Bonne, who transferred it to Morgan. A quick ball into Rak-Sakyi and he touched it back into Morgan’s path. The shot was decent but really should have been saved. Instead their keeper allowed it to squirm past his dive and within the first minute we were level.
The goal didn’t really faze Bolton but it not surprisingly gave us a lift. And for a while the game was in the balance. They fluffed a decent opening, Maynard-Brewer turned a shot over the bar, and from the corner Santos headed wide. Our real chance came just before the hour. Good work from Fraser led to a ball coming in from our left and Rak-Sakyi had found space to get on the end of it. Just that he couldn’t get a good connection on the ball, at an awkward height for him. More than a half-chance and it proved to be the closest we came to a second.
Instead, with just over 20 minutes left Bolton regained the lead. A series of challenges down their right all seemed to go their way, enabling them to advance towards our goal. When the ball came in Inniss looked set to head it clear, but he seemed to get shoved by their guy not challenging for the ball and instead the ball went up in the air. With both Maynard-Brewer and Clare drawn towards the ball, their guy was able to head it square for another to put into an empty net. Unsatisfactory on a number of fronts and a tough one to take.
That sparked changes, with Campbell coming on for CBT, and not long after Leaburn made his appearance, not for Bonne but with Clare going off and us switching more to a 4-4-2. Later Payne and Henry came on for Morgan and Dobson, but through this period, although there was no lack of determination from us and reasonable possession, Bolton continued to have the better chances to put the game to bed. In the end they didn’t need to.
It was a decent performance from us but against a better, more coordinated, physically stronger opposition who knocked the ball around with confidence and moved intelligently, it wasn’t enough. No disaster in the greater scheme of things but sobering, leaves us looking a long way up the table to sixth. It gives Sandgaard and whoever may or may not be calling the shots no additional incentive to spend money on this season in the final days of the transfer window, and as stressed by Curbs after the game increases the desire on our part to have the ownership situation resolved. Until that’s done we can’t even start to think about how we approach next season, or start to enjoy the rest of this one just for its own sake and for evidence of further improvement under Holden.