9,062 supporters at the University of Bolton stadium watched the youngest team in the history of Bolton Wanderers Football Club play out a 1-1 draw with League Two outfit Bradford City. Dennis Politic scored the first goal for the club under Keith Hill’s watch, before Paudie O’Connor levelled the scoring in the second half for the visitors, who went onto win the resulting penalty shootout in the Leasing.Com Trophy group stage fixture.
“This is only the beginning” echoed around the University of Bolton stadium ahead of Bolton Wanderers’ first home game under the ownership of Football Ventures (Whites) Ltd. The words were particularly fitting in evoking both memories of past glories at the ground then known as the Reebok, but functioned also as a reminder that the time for a fresh start in BL6 for a club plagued with issues both off and on the pitch in recent years was upon us. Prior to kick-off, a sense of cautious optimism lingered in the Tuesday evening air as the stands continued to fill of fans eagerly anticipating the beginning of a new era. In fact, such was the intrigue, presumably a result of the enticing £5 ticket price and offer of free parking, the unusual 7pm kick-off time was shifted back to 7:10pm due to traffic congestion and long queues at turnstiles. To add to the game’s peculiarity, a fan who had perhaps consumed one too many before kick-off decided to single-handedly provide pre-match entertainment by wandering nonchalantly onto the University of Bolton stadium turf unopposed, before eventually being escorted out of the premises by a horde of briskly-walking stewards. Meanwhile, the decision was taken to open the Nat Lofthouse Stand’s lower tier to accommodate the tides of incoming fans. At this point, it feels worth reiterating the fact that this was for a Tuesday evening match against a second-string Bradford City XI in a competition most people would struggle to name and, as it would later transpire, were not even aware of its format.
New managerial partnership Keith Hill and David Flitcroft were unveiled to great fanfare but the duo opted to watch on from the wings with Jimmy Phillips being most visible on the touchline due to his familiarity with the players involved in the youthful Bolton line-up. Aiming to pick off where he left off following his heroics versus Coventry City was Matt Alexander in goal. In front of him, the defence consisted of captain Harry Brockbank, Jordan Boon, fan favourite Yoan Zouma and 17-year-old Adam Senior joined him in central defence for his first start. A double-pivot of Sonny Graham and James Weir provided protection for the backline, while the triumvirate of Dennis Politic, Ronan Darcy and Callum King-Harmes were tasked with supplying lone frontman Eddie Brown.
Once the match finally got underway, the swathes of Wanderers fans didn’t have long to wait before having reason to cheer. With Bolton’s first real opportunity of the match, Romanian Dennis Politic pulled out his trademark stepovers to create a yard of space after cutting in from the flank to fire in a right-footed effort which saw the ball, in spite of the Bradford goalkeeper seemingly getting a solid hand to it, bobble over the line with eight minutes on the clock. Delirium drove through the Bolton Wanderers faithful reminiscent of Ronan Darcy’s opener at Rochdale in the EFL Cup; a celebration of surprise, relief and joy rolled into one moment. Buoyed by the goal and the resulting electric atmosphere, midfielders Weir and Graham controlled affairs with experience beyond their years in the middle of the park, sparking “Oles” from the ever-tongue-in-cheek Bolton supporters. However, as the half progressed, the physical disparity between the sides became ever clearer as epitomised by 17-year-old Adam Senior battling ex-Wanderer and Bradford captain 35-year-old Clayton Donaldson. Undeniably, Bolton rode their luck through tricky moments around the half-hour mark with Bradford seeing an effort from a corner cleared off the line by Jordan Boon before Bradford’s Jordan Gibson hit Alexander’s near post. While Bradford were creating more guilt-edged chances, Bolton’s football continued to be pleasing on the eye as interplay between Darcy, Brockbank and Weir saw Politic fire another attempt towards goal, only this time it went the wrong side of the post. Complementing the aesthetically pleasing football though was also the grit and determination that Bolton Wanderers fans have loved to witness from their academy prospects in recent weeks. Eddie Brown continually made himself a nuisance leading the line, often making runs in behind to stretch a sluggish Bradford defence, whilst King-Harmes and Darcy’s diligent running off-the ball meant this Wanderers side didn’t seem not out of its depth against lower league opposition. In familiar fashion though, tackles became sloppier towards the half’s conclusion – both Politic and Brockbank picked up yellow cards - as fatigue crept into the game, but The Trotters held out until half-time, walking down the tunnel to rapturous applause.
After the interval, Bradford came out playing much more like an established, experienced lower league club facing a side where four of the starting XI aren’t old enough to buy a pint. Bradford’s Omari Patrick caused issues for the Bolton backline and, five minutes after the restart, towering defender O’Connor outmuscled and outleapt his marker at the far post to header home from a Bradford corner. Despite an almost instant reply with Politic drawing a smart stop from Hornby in the Bradford goal, it was the Bantams who found the net once more in the 52nd minute but Pritchard’s volley was fortuitously ruled out due to a handball in the build-up. The Bolton defence continued to weather the storm with Alexander being called upon several times to keep the scores level as the midfield lost its foothold on proceedings. With the home crowd and players becoming increasingly agitated, Bolton were given a serious let-off on the hour mark as Pritchard’s feint inside left Zouma and Boon scrambling on the floor, only for the midfielder’s near-post strike to cannon off the inside of the post, fling across the Bolton goal and somehow end up going wide of the target.
To alter the game’s complexion, De’Marlio Brown-Sterling entered the fray for an Eddie Brown who had ran himself into the ground with his best performance in a Wanderers shirt to date. Meanwhile, the ineffective Donaldson was replaced by the visitors on the 64th minute mark for Zeli Ismail. Throughout the second half, Wanderers continued to threaten predominantly on the counter-attack yet the decision-making of Politic let them down on occasion in periods of transition. With 15 minutes to play, the diligent King-Harmes was replaced by 16-year-old Leigh-born Jay Fitzmartin on the right-hand side of midfield and, minutes later, 17-year-old Joe White came on for an exhausted Politic. With the final whistle approaching, Bolton’s blocks became ever-more desparate with Boon, Zouma and Senior throwing everything in the way of the ball to prevent the likes of Ismail netting what would surely be a winner. In the 89th minute, hearts were in the mouth of every single Wanderer in the stadium as Bradford centre-half Richards-Everton climbed highest to meet a Bradford corner six yards out from goal but his powerful header flew narrowly wide of the post to communal relief. Eventually, Bolton held on courageously for a point to a standing ovation from the fans. As half the crowd turned to leave, they were informed the fun would not be over yet as all tied Leasing.Com Trophy fixtures – even in the group phase – include a penalty shootout for a bonus point.
After three well-taken penalties apiece (the highlight of which was a belting effort from Brockbank into the top left corner), Wood scored for Bradford but Wanderers’ Jordan Boon saw his strike cruelly thump off the top of the crossbar. However, Alexander heroically guessed right to stop Bradford’s O’Connor from winning the shootout but, unfortunately, 17-year-old Adam Senior’s bravery to take the fifth penalty was not rewarded as his effort was stopped by the legs of the Bradford goalkeeper to give Bradford the additional point.
All in all, Keith Hill will be delighted with the showing of his young Bolton Wanderers side tonight which has proven there is most certainly a base to build a respectable League One outfit around. Players such as Weir, Politic and Darcy are undoubtedly ready to be a regular part of the squad and, once the new recruits begin to acclimatise, the squad will begin to take shape. Just remember: This was only the beginning.