Bolton Wanderers rounded off a week that had seen many fans question whether the club would exist come 3pm on Saturday, let alone that a game would be played, with a hugely vital win over fellow relegation strugglers Millwall. Cracking goals from Pawel Olkowski and veteran Gary O’Neil put Wanderers into a commanding second half lead before Lee Gregory’s strike set nerves jangling, though Milwalls’ consolation goal could do nothing to dampen the sense of pride felt by supporters towards a team of players still, at the time of writing, yet to be paid their February wages.
Though banned from being on the touchline, Phil Parkinson made four changes to the side that lost 2-0 at Swansea with Jason Lowe, David Wheater and Craig Noone all suspended. In came returning full-back Andrew Taylor to captain the side along with Will Buckley, Jack Hobbs and Joe Williams as Wanderers reverted back to the tried and tested 4-2-3-1 formation.
The first half was infinitely forgettable though Wanderers were in control for the most part. What was notable was the fact Millwall were not allowed to dictate the tempo of the game as so often has been the case for visiting sides at the UNIBOL this season. The only attempts on goal of note came in the form of long-range strikes from both Olkowski and Sammy Ameobi going close while Millwall saw a Gregory header flicked just over the bar by Hobbs. Tom Elliott was a nuisance up front for the visitors and probably had the most presentable opportunity of the half, without actually registering an effort on goal. A corner was whipped in by Jed Wallace and Hobbs slipped to allow Elliott the freedom of the box to have a header to test Remi Matthews. Thankfully he fluffed his lines and missed the ball completely, something the home faithful are more accustomed to seeing from their own lacklustre strikers.
The second half did not mirror the first in any respect, starting with a bang. After picking up a loose ball, Everton loanee Callum Connolly found Olkowski on the right hand side of the box with a beautiful, first-time pass. The Pole shifted the ball left and right before electing to shoot with his weaker foot as he slipped. Time stood still as the ball dribbled towards goal, nestling in the side netting and sending the stadium wild. It was a nerve-settling moment that lifted everyone inside the ground and was more than deserved for Olkowski who despite struggling of late had looked something like man who played his way into the Polish national team at the start of the campaign.
Not resting on their laurels, Wanderers pressed for a second goal, playing some very attractive football in doing so. Will Buckley and Ameobi got into the game more and Williams put in several brilliant tackles that had the crowd on their feet. However, a second goal would almost certainly be necessary to see the Whites home and, thankfully, on the hour mark it arrived.
Williams cleared the ball from a Millwall attack to the amazingly free O’Neil who had acres of space to run into from the halfway line onwards. Mahlon Romeo unsurprisingly caught up with the 35-year-old but the midfielder was not deterred. He twisted the full-back inside and out before lashing the ball into the same corner as Olkowski with serious venom. It was a brilliant goal from a player who has massively exceeded expectations this season and regardless of the final outcome has to be a contender for Player of the Year.
From then onward, Wanderers dominated. Aside from a good save to deny the impressive Ben Thompson from Matthews, Bolton passed the ball around with confidence and created two great openings to seal the result. Buckley passed a loose ball in the box to Williams who fired narrowly over minutes before the winger was found by Ameobi in the box forcing Jordan Archer into a routine save. Olkowski too had a good effort from almost the same spot from which he had scored that stung the palms of Archer, demonstrating the freedom he was playing with in this game.
However, as always, nothing is ever easy with Bolton Wanderers and after Taylor lost his footing to allow Wallace to cross into the box, Gregory lost his marker and back-heeled the ball past Matthews for 2-1. Moments later, Elliott headed the ball narrowly over the bar and Thompson sent a rasping drive towards goal only to see it held by Matthews. Despite these scares from a very poor Millwall side it would have been a travesty had Wanderers not held on, but they did and reduced the gap between them and safety to 5 points. s
Amidst pay disputes, takeover speculation and relegation worries, this was a very good performance from Bolton and though we have won games this season playing turgid, stifling football, the more expansive manner in which this victory was secured was very pleasing to watch. I haven’t enjoyed watching Wanderers for some time but for once this was fun. We have to take at least 4 points from the next two games, in my opinion, to have any chance of staying up and this is no mean feat. Nevertheless, the fight and quality shown in this game was magnificent and with, whisper it, an imminent takeover the future looks a little bit brighter.