Bolton Wanderers ended 2017 with an enormously important win at Bramall Lane, ending a 999 day and a 37-game wait for a triumph away from the Macron in the Championship. Pantomime villain for the day, Gary Madine, silenced the jeers of the Sheffield United faithful with a goal in the 21st minute which was enough to see the Whites over the line. It took a mixture of defensive courageousness and a bit of luck, but the boys did it.
Pre-match, few of us could have seen this result coming, especially upon viewing the much-changed starting line-up. Parky had us lining up in a 3-5-2 formation (matching Sheffield united) with Reece Burke, Filipe Morais, Josh Cullen and Adam Le Fondre coming in for rare starts. Personally, I was furious. Having seen Bolton’s last visit to the Steel City end in defeat after a dreadful showing, I was keen to see us play the Blades with our strongest team on the pitch. To me, it looked like Parky had already written the game off. How wrong I was.
The game began with little on-pitch action and the best of the entertainment came from the United fan’s derision of Madine being countered with the Bolton faithful’s taunting of Billy Sharp. This went awry for Bolton last time as the striker netted twice to silence the fans, but he was playing second fiddle in this game to the Division’s top scorer, Leon Clarke. However, it was Bolton who made the early in-roads with Antonee Robinson giving former Wanderer, Chris Basham, and Cameron Carter-Vickers nightmares down the left. He was in a confident mood which was enhanced by sitting Basham down on his first foray forward. It was a sign of things to come.
David Wheater came closest for Wanderers early on, seeing his header back across goal from a Morais corner cleared before it could cross the line, but one could sense a breakthrough was coming, and on 21 minutes it did. Robinson darted forward and when he was closed down found a good pass into Le Fondre. Carter-Vickers slipped, allowing Alfie to play the young full-back into the box and he crossed superbly to allow Madine to tap in the opener. Cue bedlam amongst the Bolton fans as Madine shushed the Home faithful (not that they needed much encouragement as they had barely made a peep all game).
One wondered at this point whether it would now become a game of attack versus defence, but it was Wanderers who had the next chance, ALF seeing a shot blocked for a corner after a knock down from Madine. In fact, Bolton were having so much joy that Chris Wilder was forced to withdraw Carter-Vickers, who had clearly fouled Madine in the box minutes earlier only for the referee to give nothing, to end his afternoon of turmoil, replacing him with a natural wing-back, George Baldock, while also moving Basham into defence. The move ensured that Robinson was double-marked and stunted his progress somewhat. Baldock had the game’s next chance too, getting onto a lay-off from Clarke but shooting tamely at Alnwick whose parry was cleared by Morais. The home side were growing into the game but both Karl Henry and Darren Pratley were doing good work to halt the creative abilities of Mark Duffy and John Fleck.
The pair were playing quarter-back roles for United, spraying passes to the forwards from deep positions where they were unable to be easily marked by Bolton’s midfielders, though Josh Cullen certainly won his personal battle with Fleck in what was a fabulous showing from the West Ham loanee. On the one occasion that Bolton fell asleep, the quarter-backs found their target. Reece Burke had marshalled the dangerous Clarke well all game, but he let him go late on in the half and his run was found by Duffy to set up a One-on-One with Ben Alnwick. Given Clarke’s form, it appeared he would easily make it 1-1, but Ben had other ideas, blocking his shot with his legs for a Sheffield corner. It was a turning point in the game and it would prove hugely important come the final count.
With no changes from either side at half-time, the second period began in the same vein with Sheffield pressing and Wanderers defending well, while using Madine as an out-ball. In the early stages of the half the best moment was when Wilder withdrew Sharp after an ineffectual performance, prompting mass ridicule from the travelling fans. Billy, you will always be just a fat lad from Sheffield. Clayton Donaldson came on to replace him and one could tell that Mark Beevers and co. were much happier marking him over Sharp.
There were very few openings to speak of in the half, with the game following the same pattern of Blades pressure, Bolton clearing and Madine holding it up trying to spark a counter. Morais was replaced by Mark Little in the hope of adding more defensive steel and Little almost found himself on a stretcher within minutes of his arrival. The ball was flicked towards goal and Little cleared it off the line but took a Beevers boot to the face in the process. He was fine to continue apparently, but from the look of his nose today, he showed immense bravery to do so.
Madine tested Simon Moore in the United net after skinning Richard Stearman in what was Wanderers’ only real chance of the half. Stearman was withdrawn to allow Samir Carruthers of Royal Ascot urinating fame to add some extra impetus to their attack. The former Wolves defender had also made a habit of going to ground whenever Madine was near him with one such episode earning the Goal Machine a booking. Stearman should take a leaf out of Burke’s book for his resilience, despite Clarke elbowing him all game, the young defender stayed on his feet and won his battle.
As the game drew to a close, Parky withdrew ALF, who had run his socks off for the cause, for Adam Armstrong and the hugely impressive Cullen (yes, I’m shocked too) for Josh Vela. It was backs to the wall for the Whites and Baldock followed up a blocked shot to force Alnwick into another great save. The miracle, however, came deep into the six additional minutes when Baldock was again free down the right. He crossed for an unmarked Clarke, with 14 goals already to his name this season, who was 4 yards out with the goal at his mercy. He skied his effort, much to Wanderers’ relief/disbelief and though United had a couple of half chances before the final whistle, it was to be Bolton’s day at last.
Credit must go to Parky for his team set-up that thoroughly helped us to win the game but also to Alnwick, Robinson and Cullen who could all have been Man of the Match. It is this desire and solidity that Wanderers will need to stay in the Championship. Completely different to the insipid performance against Burton. That we won this game without the likes of Vela, Buckley and Ameobi speaks volumes. It was also hugely pleasing that this result came against Sheffield United, who we are now 3-2 up on since the start of last season. This is more like it boys, let’s keep it going against Hull. COYWM