The step up to The Championship was always going to be difficult for Bolton Wanderers, especially with their first game back at this level being against last season’s play-off challengers Leeds United - who’ve spent over £10 million this summer. And so it proved.
A pretty abject first half saw Wanderers go in at the break 3-1 behind, but a second half rally not only saw us almost sneak back into the game but also offered a bit of hope for the long season ahead. That second half spirit was, however, marred by a couple of injuries to key players.
Wanderers went into the opener without the injured Sammy Ameobi and Filipe Morais, and ill Darren Pratley, which opened the door for West Ham loanee Josh Cullen to step up for his debut alongside Jem Karacan and Josh Vela in midfield. Phil Parkinson unsurprisingly stuck with the three at the back that fared us well last season, while Stephen Darby was handed a debut alongside fellow new signing Andrew Taylor in the wing-back roles. Gary Madine led the line alongside Adam Le Fondre.
The visitors included last season’s Championship top scorer Chris Wood up front, alongside new arrival Ezgjan Alioski - who notched 16 goals and 14 assists in the Swiss top league last campaign.
Wanderers made their intent clear from the start - long balls, and plenty of them. The first four times that Dorian Dervite picked the ball up in his right centre-back role, he launched the ball long to big Gary Madine. The lone forward fought well against two big Leeds centre halves, winning pretty much everything thrown at him in a fairly thankless task.
Parkinson would have been hoping to shut up shop and keep things tight for at least half an hour or so, but those hopes were scuppered after just seven minutes. Wanderers failed to track a clever run across the box Kalvin Phillips from a corner, and the midfielder hit a cross-shot that looped off a defender’s leg into the far corner past a helpless Mark Howard.
Leeds were buoyed and Wanderers were struggling to cope with their clear extra talent in midfield, with the lively Pablo Hernandez finding space and pulling the strings. And it told as the visitors added a second. Winger Kemar Roofe got round the back of Taylor, whipped a cross to the post for Alioski to pull the ball back to Wood to head home from close range off the underside of the bar. Wanderers’ marking was non-existent, but it was a clear example of the step up in class we’re coming up against this season.
You worried that it could end up a cricket score, but to Wanderers’ credit they found a way back into the game. Vela whipped a corner long to the far post and Madine rose highest to smash a header into the top corner - game on, and just deserves for Madine’s efforts in the first half.
But seconds later, as the celebrations were barely finished, Leeds re-established their dominance as they punished yet more weak Wanderers defending. Darby was slow to get out and lagged behind the line of his fellow defenders, playing Wood on as Hernandez fed the ball up to him. The New Zealander drew in Howard, then squared the ball to Phillips to poke home his second of the game, and again double the visitors’ lead.
Despite being two down, it always felt as though there was some hope for Wanderers to get back into it. There was a bit of fight, and it was good to see the players’ heads didn’t go down despite being up against it.
Bolton’s hard work was rewarded when they earned a penalty, as Conor Shaughnessy ridiculously pulled Madine’s shirt over his head before even touching the ball after being subbed on. Le Fondre stepped up and, as I predicted in his run-up, smashed it down the middle to make it 3-2. Game on.
But that hope was very nearly eradicated as Leeds went straight down the other end and hit the bar. That man Hernandez fired a shot from 30 yards and it smashed against the apex of the bar and post, it was an impressive effort that left Howard helpless but luckily bounced to safety.
David Wheater picked up a back strain around the hour mark, which saw a debut for Reece Burke - who looked composed and impressive in possession. Parkinson also introduced Will Buckley for his debut as well as striker Adam Armstrong, who immediately looked like a threat with his pace.
The hosts tried their best to make something happen, but ultimately fell short and only managed to create half chances for Armstrong.
But the biggest problem of the day came right at the death, when a wayward challenge saw Vela go to the ground in considerable pain. He was stretchered off and taken to hospital, which could leave our limited resources even further depleted.
Defeat but plenty of promise
Going up against a strong Leeds side was always going to be a tough ask, but yesterday’s clash showed the huge step up in quality we’re facing this season. The visitors weren’t great but they were clinical, and whenever they attacked they carried a threat.
The first half performance was worrying, and one that I think shows we need to move away from last season’s 3-5-2 formation - why do you need three centre-backs against one defender if they then don’t track midfield runners? Our midfield was overrun at times, and the midfield pairing of Karacan and Cullen, which I think has promise when they settle in and the latter of whom looked good in possession as the game continued, needs someone - potentially Burke? - anchoring them, as neither is capable of playing that deeper role.
So it’s a loss to begin with, but the second half particularly showed that Wanderers have the heart for the fight. Madine was a colossus up front, winning everything that we threw at him, we just need to get more support closer to him and ideally get players like Anderson and Le Fondre running in behind his flick-ons.
It’s a long season, and an opening day defeat to a side likely to be among the promotion contenders at the end of it will not define our campaign. The games that will are those like next weekend’s trip to Millwall - bring it on!