A late rally from Bolton should have seen them leave Oakwell with three massive points but Oli McBurnie’s header in the 93rd minute ensured honours were even in Wanderers’ biggest game of the season to date.
A first-half goal from Gary Gardner had the home side ahead and looking comfortable. Wanderers were playing really poorly but a second-half showing of passion and quality culminated in Adam Le Fondre scoring a penalty before Craig Noone opened his Bolton account from close range. Had Wanderers held on they would be 5 points clear of their hosts but McBurnie’s effort means that Barnsley can use their game in hand to leapfrog Wanderers if they win it.
Phil Parkinson rang the changes once again for this game, swapping the full-backs to bring in Mark Little and Antonee Robinson for Jon Flanagan and Andrew Taylor respectively. Filipe Morais was also restored to the team alongside Reece Burke as Bolton reverted to a 5-back formation with Morais and Ameobi out wide. While I think every Bolton fan will agree that the full-backs needed changing, it is concerning that we are seeing swapping week in, week out reminiscent of a football trading card game. Parky doesn’t know his best team and it must be hard to find consistency when this is the case.
Wanderers started the brighter in the first period, winning several corners, which with Morais on the pitch, meant there was optimism something could come from them. As it turned out, a corner did provide the opening goal but it came for the hosts. It is inconceivable to me that Bolton, with 3 massive centre-halves in the box, can’t defend set-pieces but it has been the case for some time. Cast you minds back to the first half of the season and think about who won the most headers when defending corners - Gary Madine. This is no excuse for our ineptitude but having Madine in the box meant Bolton had a spare man to seek out the crosses and head the ball away. We haven’t been able to adapt in this regard since he left the club.
The man at fault for Barnsley’s opener, however, was the usually reliable Ben Alnwick who is hitting bad patch at just the wrong time. He tried to the claim the ball and dropped it at McBurnie’s feet. He turned Little too easily and once Wheater cleared his effort off the line it fell to Gardner who found the top corner impressively. It was the kind of goal we were used to seeing from his brother, Craig, the shot being struck with venom and unerring accuracy. Had it not been so damaging to Bolton one could have applauded it.
How would Bolton respond? Would this be their inspiration to rally and take the game to the hosts? Not on your life. What the fans witnessed for the next 25 minutes or so was one of the most insipid and gutless displays this season and there have been many to choose from. Wanderers had no attacking intent and looked hugely vulnerable to going further behind with Keiffer Moore wining every header against Mark Beevers and McBurnie giving Burke the run-around. Beevers was especially poor and was up to his usual tricks hoofing the ball aimlessly forward which incurred the ire of the travelling fans. At half-time Wanderers were fortunate to only go in a goal down and the Whites were quite rightly booed off. Beevers had the gall to criticise the fans for this and rather than get a response of backing he got vitriol from over 2,500 people. I’m all for players trying to encourage the fans to support them but not when they have played awfully all game. There was a widespread feeling of depression at the break and frankly nobody could see Wanderers digging themselves out of this hole.
Parky’s response to this terrible showing was to take off the struggling Burke and replace him with Will Buckley, changing the formation to 4-2-3-1. Immediately Wanderers looked more urgent and the substitution was the obvious catalyst. The man next to me in the away end said that we needed more footballers in the team meaning players with footballing ability who are capable of passing the ball around with accuracy. Buckley certainly fits this bill and his introduction seemed to make the players realise that passing the ball was the way forward.
The former Brighton man created Wanderers first opening, beating his man and whipping in a great cross that was blasted wide by Robinson. What followed was a series of Wanderers set-pieces delivered by Morais and they could easily have scored on a number of occasions. One such set-piece found Le Fondre at the far post and his chipped pass was struck towards goal by the uncharacteristically quiet Sammy Ameobi. Barnsley’s captain Andy Yiadom made the save of the match to put the ball out for a corner but was somehow not penalised for handball. It seemed Wanderers couldn’t buy a penalty. From the resulting corner David Wheater rose highest to head the ball towards goal but this time Yiadom blocked it on the line legally. Bolton were doing all the right things but just couldn’t get it over the line.
Barnsley were still ahead and very much in the game though and Moore had a great chance to settle matters with a header in the middle of goal that he put just over. Minutes later the pacy George Moncur outstripped Robinson to get into the box but he shot straight at Alnwick with McBurnie passing the follow-up into the ‘keeper’s hands. These were isolated moments of Barnsley pressure though as it was all Wanderers for the most part.
Parky withdrew Little for Craig Noone and the former Cardiff man immediately looked dangerous. One moment that stands out was his confidence to fire a 60-yard pass out wide to Robinson to put Wanderers away while. He is playing with confidence right now and was unlucky not to start. While Noone will be looking to dislodge Morais, the Postman remained on corner duties and for the second time in the game a corner brought a goal.
I said Wanderers couldn’t buy a penalty but for the second time this season Buckley won one against Barnsley. He went down in the box after minimal contact from Moncur and the referee pointed to the spot, sending the Bolton fans into raptures. I don’t watch penalties and to me this moment would make or break our season. I have no shame in admitting I was a snivelling wreck as Le Fondre stepped up to take it. While I was facing the other way McBurnie decided to have a word in Alfie’s ear and was corralled by Darren Pratley. They both squared up and McBurnie, the cheat, did his best Tom Daley impression, hitting the ground so hard he probably did hurt himself. Thankfully the referee showed some sense and booked the squabbling pair, but would the delay deter Alfie? I turned around, buried my head in hands, heard the whistle and moments later was celebrating so hard I almost had a heart attack. As per usual, Le Fondre delivered, slamming the ball down the middle.
Anyone who was present at Port Vale last season will know that when Wheater scored the scenes were pure bedlam. This goal came pretty close to causing the same reaction. If I was on the verge of crying before I was in bits after the goal. Nobody who doesn’t love football will know what that feeling of pure elation and relief can do to a person and it’s why we love this game. Then, unbelievably given the way this season has gone, it got better.
Ameobi got free down the right and charged towards the box. His cross took a deflection off Ethan Pinnock and Yiadom collided with his goalkeeper Davies to try and clear the ball. It ricocheted towards Noone, and he volleyed home. Ask anyone who was there on Saturday, they will all tell you that the following seconds were a blur. Personally, I have absolutely no idea what I did. I think I hugged everyone around me and lost my voice, but I can’t be sure. It was amazing, it was unbelievable, it was football at its best.
But it couldn’t last. Though Parky threw on Dervite to try to see out the match and give Bolton the win that would probably keep us up, he couldn’t prevent McBurnie scoring what was a deserved goal. Moncur had hit a free-kick towards goal that was deflected just wide and from the following corner, Moore won a flick-on header and McBurnie nodded it in. The Scotsman played very well but I can’t forgive the theatrics before our penalty. They say cheats never prosper and though he did in this game I hope karma comes around to bite him come the final count.
So, Bolton were forced to take a point, something which they would have taken at half-time for sure. It’s a point that perhaps suits Barnsley more than us given their game in hand but with Birmingham losing today and having very difficult fixtures to come, we still have a good chance. Its champions elect Wolves next weekend at the Macron and I am quietly confident. It’s squeaky-bum time alright but if Wanderers play with the quality and fire they did in the second-half in their final three matches, they have nothing to fear. COYWM