In the grind of a 46 game season, some inevitably have a greater significance than others. Saturday’s trip to Oxford United had that feeling. The 6-0 drubbing of Sunderland gave us hope: a win over Oxford would give fans an even more dangerous feeling - expectation. Fortunately for those that made the journey, it was a happy 3+ hour trip back up North for fans of Bolton Wanderers after a smash and grab 3-2 win at the Kassam Stadium.
Well over 1,700 travelling fans were in full voice, hoping to see their team continue its run of good form. Bolton would have to be at their best - The U’s had lost at home just twice this season, to Plymouth Argyle and That Lot Up The Road. This was a very different Oxford United to the one beaten 4-2 by Filip Morais, Josh Vela and company in 2017.
The returns of George Johnston for Aimson and Sexy Kieran for Dempsey in the starting lineup raised fewer eyebrows than the decision to start Amadou Bakayoko ahead of Dapo Afolayan. With the wind having a hand in the game, it was clear to see why Evatt decided to start his target man, who had just last week rescued a point at Morecambe in the 104th minute of the game. For 86 minutes, he was one of the side’s least effective players. But cometh the hour…
It wasn’t the best of starts. Declan John was playing high up the pitch, more like a left winger than wingback. Oxford worked their way down the Bolton left, George Johnston giving away a soft free kick right on the edge of the box. Billy Bodin emphatically put the ball in James Trafford’s top corner to give the hosts the lead. Whether the wind carried the ball past Trafford is debatable, but Bodin will be defiant that the goal was all him. It seems that the young Manchester City loanee in the Bolton goal was expecting the cross, with Bodin’s aim fixed on Trafford’s top corner. His positioning possibly let him down for that one.
Rather than fall silent, the home side’s goal fired the away following into song. There was a time that falling behind was a precursor to defeat, but Wanderers’ recent form has everyone believing. The response was immediate - John, playing in a more advanced role than previous weeks, was played in by Saturday Night And I Like The Way You Move Aaron Morley. John fired a shot low into the bottom corner to level the scores less than two minutes after falling behind.
Despite the equaliser, the home side remained dominant. Bakayoko was not granted a free kick near halfway, and while the Bolton support bemoaned the referee, Oxford charged forward again down Bolton’s left side. Some deft footwork from Bodin fooled MJ Williams, and he finished low past Trafford for his second of the game with little over half an hour gone.
It’s more than 25 years since Wanderers fell behind twice in a game to win, and so a point seemed to be the best Bolton could hope for after Oxford had made it 2-1. This doesn’t seem to be a team too preoccupied with history, though. Against a team with impressive home form and a habit for scoring goals, The Whites rolled their sleeves up. It would be just another short wait for the second equaliser.
A dangerous cross from Saturday Night was only half cleared, the ball falling to Marlon Fossey inside the box. He wrapped his “weaker” left foot around the ball and found the top corner. The acrobatic celebration was as impressive as his emphatic finish. Bolton fans have taken Fossey to their hearts, and are already praying that he’ll be a permanent signing in the off-season.
Bolton were fortunate to go in all square at the half, but the side’s ability to chip away at the home team’s dominance gave the fans hope that they could come away with a result.
If Oxford shaded the first half, they were noticeably in control of the second. Both sides had lost their playmakers: Sexy Kieran had limped off in the first half, replaced by Kyle Dempsey. For Oxford, Bodin pulled up with an injury just after the hour mark.
Fan favourite Dapo Afolayan entered the fray for Morley on 67 minutes in a less familiar “number 10” role. Dempsey looked more comfortable deeper in midfield, tasked with keeping Cameron Branagan quiet in the late stages of the game. Jon Dadi Bödvarsson replaced Dion Charles, who had put another impressive shift up front. Even when he doesn’t find himself on the score sheet, he is a constant distraction for opposition defenders. Bödvarsson doesn’t offer the same goal threat, but is starting to link up well with his teammates in the final third.
Oxford were growing into the game as time expired, but were not overly threatening the Bolton goal. It seemed that, were the home side to score a third, it would be with some help from Wanderers. A mix up between Rico Santos and Trafford conceded a cheap corner, which thankfully came to nothing.
Against the run of play, with just four minutes left in regulation time, Gethin Jones played a slide rule ball to Fossey down the right wing. Fossey’s cross was perfectly placed for Bakayoko, who fired home from a matter of yards.
It was a nervous final few minutes, The Yellows pushing forward for a late equaliser. Trafford failed to claim a cross, with the ball fortuitously bouncing onto the roof of the net. His opposite number Jack Stevens came forward for late set piece opportunities, but The Wanderers defence held firm.
It was a hard fought win. Bolton fans knew their side was lucky to come away with all three points, but that’s football. Take your chances, and you’ll win more games than you lose. The players came over at full time to appreciate their fantastic following. The fans responded in kind with a Viking Clap, with a little help from Gethin Jones as conductor. The two need to stick together on this crucial home straight of the season. Sing your hearts out for the lads, and they’ll play theirs out for us.
Something’s happening here. I know you can feel it, too. Heads down, sleeves up. Keep up this fantastic run of form, and the league table will take care of itself. Whatever happens, this Bolton side is one we can all be proud of come the end of the season.