Way back in August, I told you something was happening here. Injuries, dressing room bust ups, a lack of squad depth and a hammering at home to our rivals got in the way.
But, after another fantastic month of January recruitment by Ian Evatt, it looks like The Whites are back on track.
When eyes were cast towards a heaving away end prior to kick off, Wanderers fans could be forgiven for having flashbacks to the mauling we suffered to that lot down the road earlier in the season. The Black Cats were in fine voice, and it made a pleasant change to see a proper football club with a fantastic following to visit The Unibol.
From the first minute, it was clear that this was going to be a very different performance from the Wigan shambles that derailed our early season progress. Dion Charles was pressing Sunderland centre halves Danny Batth and Callum Doyle, not allowing Lee Johnson’s side to build from the back. James Trafford targeted Dennis Cirkin with long passes, clearly an instruction from the Bolton boss Ian Evatt, with Marlon Fossey enjoying a clear aerial advantage. Bolton were well prepared for their opponents.
The Sunderland midfield saw a lot of the ball in the early stages, particularly captain Corry Evans. Bolton seemed to be man-marking when out of possession, with MJ Williams marauding higher up the pitch than we’re used to seeing. It was all in the name of denying the visitors the chance to settle into the game. It worked a treat, with a little help from the weather.
The Wanderers took a fortuitous lead in the 19th minute when Dion Charles chased down a long boot from ‘keeper Trafford, assisted by the wind, which held the ball in the air between the backtracking Doyle and Sunderland stopper Ron-Thorben Hoffmann. With Charles, there’s no such thing as a lost cause. He beat the ‘keeper to the long ball, and expertly lifted it past him and into the Sunderland net. 1-0.
Sunderland responded well, and saw plenty of possession. Luckily for Bolton, Black Cats striker Ross Stewart was more interested in initiating handbags with the Bolton back line than putting his side level.
The second goal is exactly how Ian Evatt wants his team to play in this formation. Unfortunately, most teams sit deep against us, and deny Dion Charles of much space behind the centre halves. Luckily for us, Sunderland came to play, and were chasing a one goal deficit. It is fitting that Dapo Afolayan, who won the ball on the edge of his own box before finding Charles on halfway with a perfectly weighted pass, was there to slot home with just minutes until the half time whistle. A two goal advantage flattered Bolton at the half, but Dapo’s finish lifted the atmosphere in the home end. Half time, 2-0.
As a nearly-warm pint found its way to my throat in the concourse, the nerves had already set in. Sunderland would score, the away crowd would roar them to an equaliser, and we’d crumble under the pressure. That’s the Wanderers way. How many times have we seen a Bolton side dominate a first half, only to throw points away like wedding confetti in the second?
If anything, Bolton came out like the side that was 2-0 down. Marlon Fossey flew down the right wing at any opportunity. Aaron Morley grew into the game, snuffing out counter attacks with his innate ability to win second balls in the opposition half. Kieran Lee was doing his usual sexy thing, nipping possession back from the opposition and linking up with some exquisite passing.
The third was the result of some lovely football between Fossey, MJ Williams and Welsh Wonder Gethin Jones. Afolayan returned the favour to Charles for the latter’s first half assist, cushioning a header across the six yard box for Charles to fire home. It’s now three goals in two games for the new frontman, who had thrived under the new 5-3-2 set up that Evatt has adopted. 3-0 Wanderers.
The fourth was some sexy football finished off by the sexiest of them all. A desperate Sunderland clearance was picked up by none other than Aaron Morley. Morley to Afolayan. To Charles. To Lee. Goal. In just six touches of the ball, Wanderers had gone from winning possession to sealing an emphatic victory. 4-0.
Dejected manager Lee Johnson had made all three of his changes by this stage, bringing on £22m of talent in Jack Clarke and Patrick Roberts. Unfortunately for them, the game was already over. Many of the 5,000 strong travelling support were on their way back to the river where they used to build the boats. Trafford was forced into his lone save of the second half when he stopped Clarke at close range.
Sunderland’s misery was compounded when Danny Batth inexplicably fired home a bullet header past his own goalkeeper with no Bolton player in sight. It was a strike that any centre forward would have been proud to score. 5-0.
It is credit to The Wanderers that the standards of performance never slipped, regardless of the scoreline. Fossey drew yellow cards from two frustrated Sunderland players, Lynden Gooch and Callum Doyle. Bolton substitutes Amadou Bakayoko and Jón “Dadi Cool” Bödvarsson provided some energy off the bench, denying Dion Charles his first Bolton hat trick, but allowing the fans to begin their Viking Thunder claps from the East Lower. Kieran Sadlier struggled to make his mark on the game, but that was to be expected for someone who joined the club just 24 hours before kick off.
One final nail in the coffin came when Declan John’s shot hit the floor, and spun over Hoffmann’s head and into the net. It was the first time Wanderers had scored six in a league game at The Reebok/Macron/Unibol. It was the worst defeat Sunderland had ever suffered at this level. Bolton Wanderers six, Sunderland nil.
And the best bit? You’ll see those goals on Netflix next summer. It was a season defining result for both sides. For Sunderland, a trip to the playoffs seems the most likely conclusion to their season. Can Bolton begin to dream of joining them?
Something is happening here. Be patient, and have faith. Ian Evatt has a plan, and his recruitment is certainly working. Fossey, Morley and Charles have revived a tired side in need of quality and energy. Bödvarsson and Sadlier will hope to break into the team and have a similar impact. Kyle Dempsey must be wondering what he needs to do to get out of Gillingham and join the revolution.
There’s a long way to go. Could another unlikely run to the top of the table be in store for The Wanderers this season? The playoffs are just 12 points away. Whatever happens, we’ll have some fun on the way.
What a day. What a performance. What a football club.