We only bloody did it. I thought prior to writing this that I was either going to be morbidly depressed or the happiest man alive, and thankfully for you dear reader it’s the latter. Such is the nature of Bolton Wanderers that we would squander the good position we were in a few games ago to be left needing to win in this final game in order to stay in the Championship next season. We needed play-off chasing Preston to beat Burton, Derby to see off Barnsley and ourselves to beat an inform Forest in order to consolidate our position. Judging on our last few games it was looking pretty bleak and a loss at Burton last week had only made things worse. I’d been debating with a few of the lads at work for most of the season and I’ve always found myself to be strangely positive; never imagining we’d go down for a second, but I have to admit going into the game yesterday, I was very nervous.
Prior to the match we were treated to the news that the much maligned Aaron Wilbraham would be starting as our lone frontman; Twitter was in uproar with the thought of giving the veteran the start over ALF in this must win game and even the guy with the ‘’Wilbrahamovic’’ shirt couldn’t believe it. It started much as you would expect, back and forth with Wanderers nervy but pressing Forest high up the pitch and Forest not keen to commit too much forward. It was them however who came the closest in the opening stages with Ben Brereton thankfully narrowly striking wide of the post when it was easier to hit the target. In a half that didn’t have much action it was Wanderers who had the better of the chances, coming time and time again at Forest, spending much of the half knocking on the door and through a combination of Morais, Vela and Wilbraham, Wanderers had more than enough chances to take the lead. Especially Wilbraham who himself missed a sitter, had a goal disallowed and hit the post from point blank range. Before the game fans were decrying Parkinson for starting Wilbraham over Le Fondre and it was starting to look justified after these near misses, he probably put in his best performance in a white shirt and worked incredibly hard with some nice flicks on to the front men but was just lacking in front of goal. The half ended level but Wanderers were definitely on top on the balance of play, forcing some good saves out of Kapino in goal, but they were looking vulnerable on the break and Pratley was on a yellow after a typically feisty half.
Wanderers were dealt a further blow at the start of the second half as fans spotted Howard warming up and news filtered around that Alnwick was injured. Mark Howard came off to bench to make his 8th appearance of the season as Wanderers started the second failing to pick up were the first had ended. Forest definitely looked the liveliest in the opening stages with the excellent Joe Lolley coming closest, rattling the crossbar from range. Barnsley and Burton were both losing so all Bolton needed was a vital goal to put them in control. The deadlock was finally broken shortly after the removal of the booked Pratley for Le Fondre, switching the formation into something resembling a 4-2-4. With Le Fondre showing his poaching credentials once more, as the ball was bouncing around the box he pounced and drove a sharp volley into the top corner. The Macron exploded but the celebrations were short lived. I know I was still celebrating as Osborn was given too much space on the left side and he tried his luck from distance and rifled past the substitute Howard for the equaliser. Play continued to get stretched with Bolton pushing for a much needed 2nd goal; news that Burton had equalised and that Preston were down to ten men sent a ripple of nervous energy through the stands and those nerves started to filter down onto the pitch. Forest was doing their best to ruin Wanderers day and could not be accused by any of rolling over in this contest. It was them who broke through first, pushing forwards on the break and ultimately capitalising on a mistake by Little; Brereton having a shot blocked and the resulting melee falling to Jack Colback who struck first time on the volley to send thousands of Bolton fans into dismay.
It was at this point I must admit that I lost a bit of hope. What a nightmare situation we were in, needing to score 2 goals to come back from behind to win a game, something we had failed to do in months and now with League 1 staring us in the face. However, just when all looked lost, big David Wheater now playing as a CF strode forward and smashed the ball in from close range after being set up by Alfie. The Macron was jumping, urging their team on to get that vital winner, and they didn’t have to wait long as a minute later on the 88th; a beautiful thing happened. In a moment of pure Phil Parkinson football a long hoof is expertly flicked into the channel by Karl Henry, Adam Le Fondre catches the Forest back line flat footed and strides towards the left hand side of the box. He flicks the ball into the 6-yard area and the 38 year old Aaron Wilbraham (who’s ran his legs off all game) throws himself forward and buries the ball in the bottom corner with a beautiful diving header. I couldn’t tell you much of what happened after Wilbraham scored; the whole ground delirious, praying and begging the team to clear their lines and hold on for 5 more minutes. News again from the other grounds confirmed that Preston were beating Burton so all Bolton had to do was hold on and they would be safe from relegation. The final minutes weren’t without there scares as Forest continued to press a Bolton team that were sat very deep and the substitute Vellios tried his luck from range with an ambitious overhead kick that flew narrowly over. But that, thankfully was that.
As the final whistle blew, all the emotion that every Bolton fan had been holding in throughout the game burst out in one collective outpouring of relief and joy. A seasons worth of drama, defeat and hardship ended in the most unexpected of fashions. No other team has come back from the start to the season we had, no one thought we’d do it after Madine was sold but we managed against all the odds to cling on. We didn’t make it easy for ourselves, we never do, but all that shite was worth it to see our fans running onto the pitch to celebrate with their heroes in the bank holiday sunshine. That is what football is all about, a true underdog, backs against the wall performance. The kind Phil Parkinson is born to pull out of a group of players. What happens next is anyone’s guess but the fact I am able to write this article with hope for the season to come is all I could have dreamed for at the start of play yesterday.