It is very comforting when we, as fans, are proven right. As Bolton saw out their 2-0 win over the soulless corporate entity that is Salford City, every fan watching, whether on iFollow or Sky, would have felt vindicated. For weeks we have been saying that a change in goal would bring us defensive stability. We were right. We have said all season our midfield is much better balanced with Andy Tutte in it. We were right. We thought Ian Evatt was toying with Richie Wellens when he said Gethin Jones, Antoni Sarcevic and Eoin Doyle wouldn’t be fit for this game. We were right. God, I love it when we are right.
When the team sheet was announced at 6:45 on Friday evening, the negativity and trepidation many of us were feeling about this clash under the lights disappeared. We, ourselves, at LOV had predicted a loss, and a heavy one at that. Such has been the inconsistency of Bolton Wanderers this season, it seemed for all the world that “class of 92’s” charges would pick us apart. Not so. With Billy Crellin dropped for the experience of Matt Gilks, we believed our defence would be more confident. With Tutte alongside Sarcevic, the latter would have the freedom to play his natural game. With Jones in the side, our left-flank would be more dependable. With Doyle up front, we would have serious firepower. It was a team sheet that inspired belief, and it payed huge dividends.
Though Lee Hendrie of Sky Sports believed Salford dominated the early exchanges, this was a mirage. It was a “dominance” we have heard about all too often this season: meaningless possession without any incision. The two former Wanderers in the heart of Salford’s midfield, Jason Lowe and Oscar Threlkeld, were tidy on the ball. That is all. They passed sideways, backwards or without purpose. It was very ‘present-day’ Bolton.
The first moment of real attacking play culminated in the first goal. It was goal reminiscent of ‘old-school’ Bolton, and it was marvellous. Sarcevic hustled and harried Lowe off the ball, battled Tom Clarke and forced an error and got his head up to see Doyle. If the build-up had been driven by desire, what followed was quality above this level. The pass to Doyle, who had expertly peeled away from Jordan Turnbull, was perfect. The control: superb. The finish: clinical. The joy on the Irishman’s face will have been matched by Wanderers up and down the country. It was a great moment.
In typical Bolton fashion, however, it would all have been for nothing had one of Evatt’s other big changes not come good minutes later. Brandon Thomas-Asante, a peripheral figure due to the superb performance of Ricardo Santos, got free on the edge of the box and unleashed a fierce strike towards Bolton’s top corner. Gilks, who had had nothing to do all game to this point, produced a great save to deny him. I don’t think it would be fair to suggest that Crellin could not have produced something similar, but it is fair to say the ease with which Gilks stretched to deny the Salford forward will have given his defence some assurances that he would not be beaten as easily as his protege.
The half belonged to Bolton with Sarcevic and Ali Crawford having sighters at goal. However, the Whites’ dominance should not be measured by chances, but by their level of control over their expensively assembled opponents. They won everything in midfield, with Tutte in particular showing expert reading of the game to intercept passes and halt attacks in their infancy. The back-three of Alex Baptiste, Santos and Ryan Delaney looked comfortable and never gave Thomas-Asante nor Ian Henderson a sniff. Doyle and his partner, Nathan Delfouneso, looked like they had never been apart. Wanderers were all over Salford, and it was joyous to at long last watch us dominate, properly this time.
Old habits die hard, though, and this hard work could have been undone within 30 second-half seconds. Wellens withdrew Thomas-Asante and the experienced George Boyd at the interval, throwing on Luke Burgess and the marmite Bruno Andrade. Wanderers were fortunate that the latter was not on form, as a poor header from the otherwise imperious Santos saw him through one-on-one with Gilks. Whether he was rusty having just been introduced, or the presence of the Wanderers keeper put him off, I don’t know, but the former QPR attacker snatched at the chance and put the ball well wide. It was a lucky break.
Bolton seemed content, after this scare, to allow their visitors more of the insipid possession they had enjoyed in the first period. While it would have been much better to see Wanderers take charge, it was impressive how they contained Salford and how comfortable they looked in doing so. The only attempts on goal came from distance and were never close to troubling Gilks, though one of them came from Lowe and produced a superb block from, the otherwise quiet, Peter Kioso.
The game was decided by a much more clinical Salford finish, though. Turnbull, whose links with a transfer to Bolton over the summer were heavily publicised, had Doyle breathing down his neck and was facing his own goal when Jones fired a hopeful ball over the top. Under pressure, he swiped at it. What followed was poetry in motion. Vaclav Hladky, his goalkeeper, had come to rescue the situation but Turbull had eyes only for the ball. His swipe turned into a sumptuous lob and as the ball bounced towards the goal, Doyle’s face painted not a thousand words, just two: Get in!
A face that will get more headlines, however, was that of Gary Neville. He had spoken pre-match of his desire for Salford to be promoted every single year, such is the ambition he and his co-owners have for the club. His choice to sack Graham Alexander was a risky one and has been heavily criticised by his club’s supporters. His look of disappointment captured by the Sky cameras was certainly that of a man doubting his decisions. I don’t mind admitting that it was one of the highlights of the game for me.
Ashley Hunter had a glorious chance moments after the own-goal which was again saved by Gilks. It wasn’t the best of finishes, but again you wondered if Crellin would have shown the strength to pull off the stop. If there are no adverse effects from this game, it would be insane to take the 38-year-old out of the team. His Man of the Match award may have been gratuitous, but his constant screaming at his defenders and the confidence his saves will have given them was paramount to the victory. Not bad for an old timer!
After the Hunter chance, the game passed without too much incident. Sarcevic should have got the goal his swashbuckling performance deserved, with two decent chances spurned. The first of which he showed poor decision making, trying to chip Hladky instead of squaring the ball to one of Crawford, Doyle or Delfouneso. The second, a tame left-footed shot didn’t give a superb mazy run the finish it deserved.
Come the final whistle, there was one more moment, however, that shone out to me. Santos, who’s colossal performances over the last two months represent a Lazarus-esque resurgence, so poor were his showings in the early part of the season, won a header against substitute Mani Dieseruvwe, shoulder barged the 6 ft 4 striker onto the ground and sprinted across to make a superb sliding tackle to stop Andrade breaking away. The game was over, yet the clean sheet meant so much to the Portuguese that he still protected Wanderers’ goal as if his life depended on it. A fantastic display once again.
This victory, again, could be a turning point in our season. We have said this countless times before, but it does feel different. Our next 4 games are against some of the poorest teams in this league and we currently, at the time of writing, sit 6 points off the play-off spots. We have what I would say is our strongest team fit and available and the manager is finally showing that he knows how to adapt his strategy to suit the opposition. Consistency is key, but it has been the thing we have struggled to find for years. Consistent performances like this, though, and HMS Piss the League is well and truly ready to set sail again.