Control is an elusive thing. We all strive for it. Some are desperate for it. As we have learned in this past week, in life, control is often an illusion. Nobody knows what is going to happen next. That said, football is not life. It is a pastime, a game we play, watch, even become obsessed with, in order to bring some joy and happiness into our unpredictable lives. That joy has been largely absent from the experience of Bolton Wanderers' supporters during the last few years. However, it may finally be within reach. It is not, unfortunately, in control.
Going into Tuesday's match, Bolton's fate was in Bolton's control. Win the last four matches of the season, and Bolton would make the playoffs. An early goal had the Trotters feeling good, and their supporters feeling great. It all fell apart though, and now, with three matches left to play, Bolton are on the outside looking in. They sit in seventh place, one spot and one point removed from the final playoff position. So we need help. Somewhere over the next three matches Leicester City need to drop points, and the Whites need to run the table.
Given recent form and overall talent level, three wins on the trot (two at home) does not appear outlandish. But we are Bolton, and we never do anything the easy way.
Middlesbrough make their trip to the Reebok this weekend having done Bolton a favor during the week by defeating Nottingham Forest 1-0. Forest are level with Wanderers on points, and only sit below them in the table due to goal difference. Previous to that, Boro had not won a match since the second of March, a run that saw them draw one while losing six. Before that collapse, manager Tony Mowbray would have fancied his own side's chances to make the playoffs. As it stands now, Boro are still mathematically alive, but in a very poor position. They are six points behind Leicester City, who currently occupy sixth, with three matches to go. Boro also would have to leapfrog four other clubs to win the coveted sixth spot. It's just not going to happen.
The home side, of course, only have to pass one other club to get back into the playoff spots, and thus, regain control of their fate. Bolton's form at the Reebok has been outstanding. Goals, clean sheets, and wins as far as the eye can see. This will need to continue. And as stated above, we won't make it easy on ourselves. When Bolton defeated Brighton & Hove Albion 1-0 on March 9th it was our fifth win on the trot, and eighth straight without a loss. It was that run that got Wanderers back into the playoff chase. Two of the players that featured that day, Jay Spearing and David Ngog, will miss the rest of the season with injury. A third, defensive stalwart Craig Dawson, will return to his parent club next week. They are all huge losses.
Early on in his managerial reign, Dougie Freedman chopped and changed the side from week-to-week. I, for one, think this was necessary in order for him to find the right combinations which enabled the current run we are on. In recent weeks he has been fairly consistent, in formation and personnel. But between the injuries and player form, we are again in some doubt as to what team he will put out this weekend.
There is a good chance Spearing will win Bolton's Player of the Year award, yet he is probably the easier to replace. Medo Kamara and Darren Pratley are both in good form, Josh Vela is back to match fitness, and Stu Holden is waiting in the wings. The bigger issue is replacing Ngog.
Marvin Sordell has pace. Craig Davies has size. Kevin Davies has strength. And Tom Eaves has the ability to finish (maybe). But Ngog was our best all-around forward. He was a combination of all these skills. I don't think Freedman trusts any of our strikers to play on his own now that the Frenchman has gone. That means a return to 4-4-2, most likely in the form of Sordell and Craig Davies.
There is one other likely change, this one because of performance. It takes quite a disaster for Freedman to make a tactical substitution in his back four. And Danny Butterfield was an unqualified disaster on Tuesday. He was so bad that Sam Ricketts, our third choice right back when everyone is fit, had to come on to save the day. He failed. But it is just about certain that Ricketts will get the start at the Reebok on Saturday.
Defense has been the key to Bolton's great form at home. A clean sheet Saturday would go a long way towards getting Wanderers back into the playoff spots. And back in control.