I keep forgetting we've been relegated. Seriously, I woke up yesterday morning thinking something along the lines of:
"I think we can get something today and if Charlton lose we might be able to close the gap and give ourselves a paddle to get up shit creek."
Then I showered and before I knew it, the water I was cleaning myself with became saltier, polluted by my Bolton Wanderers-induced tears. We're down, ladies and gents. Whether we'll come straight back up remains to be seen but based on yesterday's performance, I can't see it happening.
The game started slowly with very few clear cut chances for either side. I still can't work out who was playing where in midfield - all I know is that Derik was the anchor and Zach Clough was playing from the left, sort of. With Emile Heskey up front on his own, I thought we'd get absolutely slaughtered from the word go, but it wasn't to be. Boro didn't look like a team that were sitting pretty at the top of the league but then again, we never really gave them a reason to get out of first gear. The first real moment of excitement game in the 24th minute when Stuart Downing smashed a strike onto the bar from 30 yards out, leaving Ben Amos scrambling (as per). The away side were convinced the ball had crossed the line but it clearly bounced out and away - a let off for the Wanderers.
As the first half continued, Bolton grew into the tie. Despite Dean Moxey having his worst game in a Bolton shirt to date, the rest of the back four, including academy product Niall Maher once again, looked pretty solid. Derik (who has been lucky enough to receive my man of the match award) was outstanding in the holding midfield role, breaking up play and keeping the Boro attacks to a minimum. Mark Davies played with a freedom I haven't seen in a long time, linking up with Josh Vela to provide Emile Heskey and Zach Clough with possession to cause trouble. We actually played some decent stuff, a shadow of the team that turned out at the iPro Stadium last weekend.
10 minutes before half time, Maher played Clough in down the right hand side. The little man squirmed his way into the box, cut the ball back to Mark Davies and, after a melee of Boro defenders waded in to steal possession, the former Wolves man managed an audacious backheel towards goal. Sadly his effort was saved but the willingness we showed to score a goal was startling - we didn't look like a relegated team. Don't get me wrong, there were all sorts of misplaced passes here and there, and in certain areas we looked very, very weak, but by and large we genuinely had a bit of fight about us. It was really great to see.
After the break there was a real sense of optimism amongst the Wanderers faithful. With over almost 5,000 Boro fans in the south stand, the atmosphere was excellent. An overall attendance of 18,196 was, by and large, very good. Considering the game had a ridiculously early kick off time, was televised AND we've already been relegated, 13,500 Wanderers fans isn't bad at all. With season ticket prices expected to tumble in the coming weeks I think our attendance figures won't be too far away from that next term. Back on the pitch, the Whites were on top. Mark Davies and Zach Clough were causing the Boro defence all sorts of issues and Emile Heskey was having a cracking game up top; holding the ball up fantastically well. We really had the league leaders on the ropes and something had to give.
That something came from a lovely little passage of play - probably the best I've seen under Phillips - which started with a long throw from Niall Maher. After a defensive mix up for the visitors the ball fell to Emile Heskey who trapped it and perfectly laid off to Josh Vela, allowing the academy graduate room to slam home from close range. Oh my God. We were winning. Accumulators up and down the country were in serious jeopardy. Could we be that team?
No, we couldn't. In their infinite wisdom, our management equivalent of Laurel & Hardy (that's Phillps & Reid to you and I) decided to pull Emile Heskey off. Now, I'm not against this decision. The big man can't play more than 60 minutes and is likely to call time on his playing career at the end of this season, but it's the man they chose to replace him that really makes my blood boil. Liam fucking Trotter. A man who, for me, is a defensive midfielder. A man who isn't good enough to play for our club. A man who should be released from his contract at the earliest opportunity, playing up front, on his own, against top of the league. What were they thinking?! Phillips has since said he felt Trotter was the only player on the bench who could replace Heskey in a like-for-like swap, allowing us to play the same system for the remainder of the game. What a ridiculous decision. Get Woolery on, get the ball in the channels and let him hold it up that way. Absolute fucking basics.
After Trotter's bizarre inclusion it didn't take long for Boro to equalise. The former Nottingham Forest loanee failed to push wide to close down their full back who was then allowed time and space to cross the ball from the right. The resulting header from Jordan Rhodes hit David Wheater and fell fortunately a second time for the Scotsman, providing him with a tap in past the flailing Ben Amos - already on his arse after diving for the first header.
It was then that our very own Groundhog Day began. We regressed back into our relegation shell, showing the entire world why we're deservedly heading into League One, if not further in the coming years. The attacking, positive Bolton Wanderers was gone, replaced with a side that spent the final 20 minutes of the game in their own half, inviting pressure and generally doing everything they could to lose the game.
With a few scares beforehand, the final nail in the coffin came as the tie ticked into stoppage time. Some truly woeful defending from Darren Pratley - completely neglecting his defensive duties and failing to track his runner, David Nugent - allowed the former Leicester City man time and space to deliver a lofted cross into the box. £9million January signing Rhodes rose like a salmon and headed home, sealing all three points for the visitors and sending the travelling fans into raptures.
We're shit. We're down. Time to clear the decks, keep those who really want to stay at the club and sort our shit out, before it's too late.