Bolton maintained their six-point advantage over the Bottom Three with a hard-fought 1-0 victory over Aston Villa, nullifying the fact that Birmingham City won convincingly 3-0 earlier that day. Adam Le Fondre scored from close range in the 19th minute, turning home a clever flick by Darren Pratley, a piece of skill entirely missed by Sky Sports’ commentators in their crusade to label us as a long-ball team. A mixture of poor finishing and brilliant last ditch defending saw Wanderers over the line but they more than played their part in a contest overshadowed by the artic conditions in which it was played.
Bolton were unchanged from their draw at Hillsborough last time out and had seen their lead over Villa’s city rivals Birmingham cut in half that afternoon as they sent Hull City crashing back to earth at St. Andrews. Few truly believed that Wanderers could take all the points from this game with the Villains having beaten Champions-elect Wolves 4-1 the previous week. They had, however, been beaten 3-1 at home by QPR on Tuesday, showing this would be no means be an impossible task and the weather can only have served to be a great leveller, as they say.
Wanderers had the better of the early exchanges, winning corner upon corner and putting pressure on a Villa side backed by around 4,000 fans, filling their allocation. The conditions meant for reduced visibility and, ludicrously, the first 15 minutes were played using a white ball which only made matters worse. We learned at the end of the game the change required the goal-line technology to be rebooted to recognise a new ball but had a goal been scored during this time there would have great controversy I’m sure.
Unfortunately for Villa they had no excuses when the ball was put into the back of the net as the change in ball brought a Wanderers goal. Sammy Ameobi whipped a corner in low to the near post and Pratley’s deft flick was finished expertly by Le Fondre: a typical poacher’s goal. Wanderers’ were not given the due credit for the goal, in my opinion, and what proved it was a rehearsed move was the fact they tried it again in the second half. It might be bitter on my part, but this was a moment of true quality in a game which was characterised by Bolton’s ability to fight and that it wasn’t recognised shows true bias on the part of media towards the “more fashionable sides”.
Rant over. Bolton were dealt a blow almost immediately after taking the lead as Pratley was forced off due to a bruised shin to his recently healed broken leg. Early reports suggest the injury isn’t too serious but Parky was naturally cautious to risk him given his chequered injury history. Villa seemed to warm up at this point despite the weather and Jack Grealish grew into the game, firing a dipping volley towards goal from distance that required Ben Alnwick to tip it over. Their best chance of the half fell to the in-form Lewis Grabban, a man Wanderers reportedly tried to sign on Deadline Day and despite finding himself as free as a bird in the 6-yard box after bundling Mark Beevers over, the former Sunderland man couldn’t fire a meaningful shot on goal.
After the break the game became more even and though neither side threatened by way of shots it was down to some impressive defending rather than a lack of trying. There were some thunderous challenges going in, none more so than that of Andrew Taylor which caused uproar amongst the Villa players, prompting an ugly confrontation between Robert Snodgrass and Karl Henry. Taylor won the ball cleanly but caught Icelander Birkir Bjarnason’s ankle on the full. It’s a tackle I would like to see in the game, but it could have been a leg-breaker. Nowadays one doesn’t know what counts as legal.
Le Fondre had the games next best chance with a dipping half-volley after using his body position to get the better of James Chester. The connection wasn’t great, however, and the ball sailed wide and from there on in it was a case of scrap to see the game out. It appeared Bolton had managed the game perfectly until substitute Scott Hogan (by this point Villa had 4 strikers on the pitch) was found in the box and poked the ball towards the corner of the net. Jon Flanagan saved the day with a great block on the line that floated into Alnwick’s hands. I thought the scouser had a poor game overall but he more than played his part with that block.
The best chance for Villa to nick a point came in the last seconds, though. Wanderers themselves had snatched a draw in dramatic fashion at Hillsborough the week before and were so nearly on the receiving end when James Bree got free at the back post. His header was perfect: low and across the keeper. Ben Alnwick, however, has been in inspired form this season and pulled a remarkable save to deny him. It was a moment where time stood still, and it looked for all the world that victory would be snatched away, but Alnwick saved us and the referee blew for Full-Time almost immediately. They call it a relegation scrap for a reason, but Bolton are the best scrappers around.