An imperfect but intermittently impressive performance saw Town overcome an increasingly demoralised and troubled Bolton; riding their luck at times but fully deserving to complete an encouraging and rewarding Christmas period with 7 points from 9.
The stricken home side, reportedly on the brink of administration which would inevitably be just the start of their problems, had been buoyed by a rare victory in their last game against Blackburn and started strongly against a strangely hesitant and error strewn Town whose occasional penchant for poor starts is a trait Herr Wagner will surely be looking to correct.
Misplacing passes, losing possession and shape and lacking an adequate response to the threats of Feeney and Clough, the visitors should have found themselves behind early in the game – an often fatal state in this unforgiving division.
An early Town foray forward was broken up easily and Pratley’s pump forward was headed on by Madine – beating Lynch a little too easily – which found Feeney and a completely exposed visiting defence. Outpacing Chilwell, the winger shot early, beating Steer but not the left hand post.
Town were slightly fortunate not to be punished by the ensuing play and the uncertainty which had pervaded the opening 10 minutes – including a near miss from Madine’s header following a great cross by Feeney – was followed by intense pressure by the Trotters with a couple of good efforts foiled by blocks by Hudson, who had one of his much better days.
Bolton, like Bristol City before them, had clearly set out to meet fire with fire to counter Town’s new style and harried a strangely lethargic opposition in to errors and disorganisation. Bunn and Scannell, in particular, were well below par and, while he improved, Hogg was guilty of giving away possession too many times in a mixed performance. His midfield partner, Huws, was better but not immune to the early malaise, and it seemed like an age before composure finally returned to the visitors’ play.
As Bolton eventually found out, maintaining the intensity required to keep Town in disarray is difficult and the tide turned following a strong penalty shout when Wells was taken down in the area following an excellent ball from Lolley. Apparently insulted by a poor refereeing decision – Guano’s challenge was laughably eponymous – the Terriers gained control and while poor final balls and the stuttering displays of Bunn and Scannell mitigated against many chances being created, a platform had been built for a much improved second half performance.
Wagner made a trademark and bold substitution, replacing the lethargy of Scannell with Paterson’s effervescence, and Bolton’s early energy was swamped, their cohesion dismantled and swathes of possession forced the hosts in to employing a crude, largely ineffective long ball game to Madine, who was marshalled relatively easily by Hudson and Lynch (though not always legally).
From the kick off, a flowing move involving Paterson and Huws set Wells free in the area, but the Bermudian’s good effort was very well saved and the pattern for the half was set.
Bolton couldn’t cope with Town’s pressing out of possession and time after time, the visitors were swarming towards goal – though poor decision making let them down too often.
Finally, the goal which Town’s enterprise deserved arrived. After breaking up play, the ever impressive Lolley was set free to run at Bolton’s retreating and increasingly traumatised defenders. His first attempt pole axed the unfortunately monikered Guano only to bounce straight back to Lolley to finish with admirable control.
Dominating possession and with their opponents’ confidence visibly deflating, Town attacked with pace and numbers only to over elaborate in the final third too often and the lead looked a little flimsy despite the hosts’ increasingly laboured and one dimensional attempts to level.
Hudson was hurt making a block in the area and when Town’s attempt to play out from the back floundered, Madine was free for once and he played in Clough to curl a shot wide. If the let off was deserved, it emphasised those pesky fine margins which can overturn superiority in an instant.
It was to be Bolton’s final chance of redemption though there was still to be a long wait before Town could seal victory – the marauding Chilwell could have capped another fine display with a goal on two occasions but composure deserted him. Sadly, his exhilarating loan spell is now over and the chance of extending it remote – Town fans will follow what could be a sparkling career with no little affection.
Huws had a good effort deflected wide for yet another predictably unproductive corner and other promising attacks floundered for want of the right decisions but Town had their foot on their ragged opponents’ neck.
Bunn, who had been largely out of sorts, was replaced by Carayol and Wagner’s growing reputation for inspired substitutions was further enhanced when less than 2 minutes later the Middlesbrough loanee finally put the game to bed.
Picking up the ball just inside Bolton’s half, Carayol ran in to the ever inviting space between the home side’s defence and midfield (it was a yawning chasm by this stage), and played in Wells who was clearly fouled by the wretched Guano, as he shot against the keeper. The miserable referee played a good advantage as the ball fell back to Carayol to hammer the final nail in Bolton’s coffin.
With victory sealed, the impressive Huws was replaced by Cranie and a large stride towards survival had been taken.
It had been a far from flawless performance.
Even slightly better sides than Bolton would have punished a painfully slow start – indeed, the slightly better Bristol City already have done, as have the much superior Brentford. While most teams in this division will find it difficult to maintain the high tempo required to subdue Wagner’s philosophies, the increased susceptibility to conceding early is a problem which needs addressing.
There is also a lack of ruthlessness at the other end – Town regularly swarmed forward in the second half with both pace and numbers and should have buried Bolton far sooner than they eventually did.
Looking past the flaws, however, the transformation of the team from a timid outfit seemingly waiting to be beaten by opponents perceived to be too superior, wealthy or powerful to challenge remains quite remarkable. The potentially debilitating loss of Whitehead’s experience and leadership has been largely overcome and it is not a coincidence that the swagger and attacking intent is now being rewarded by a much fairer share of luck, even if decent refereeing continues to elude us.
The unity of purpose is palpable and, importantly, spreading to the supporters who hailed Wagner loudly after the game.
There will be setbacks ahead – a shallow squad now stripped of a high quality left back needs reinforcement – but the direction of travel is assuredly upward and there is huge scope for further improvement.
On to the cup now – a repeat of last season’s disgusting capitulation seems impossible under this management – followed by 2 eminently winnable home league games which could well be a launch pad for a memorable 2016.
Happy New Year.