It looks pretty good doesn’t it? Two goals scored, none conceded; three points appear to indicate a commendable response to defeat by the same score in the opening game of the season. What’s not to like? Well, quite a lot actually. For much of the game we were clueless, lacking spark or invention, and, in some cases it appeared, lacking fitness as well. Coupled with the defeat at Burnley last Saturday, it has been a sorry opening to the season.
We began our home campaign in the Championship with the familiar 4-4-2 line up comprising Bogdan; Mears, Mills, Knight, Ricketts; Chungy, Mark Davies, Andrews, Eagles; Kevin Davies, Sordell. It was my first view of a number of these players and I decided before the game that I would try and rid myself of long standing prejudices about formations, Zat Knight, long balls and so forth, and be completely objective.
The first few minutes were quite entertaining and promised an abundance of goals; the game swung from end to end and chances fell to both sides. The Derby striker Sammon skipped past Mills, who was fortunate not to concede an early penalty as he frantically clutched at the forward’s shirt to deny the shooting chance. At the other end, Chungy floated inside in fine style only to shoot when he would have done better to square the ball across the goal. Eagles had the first of a number of shots that progressively became wilder until one just missed the corner flag. It wasn’t the Premier League, there were plenty of errors, but it was enjoyable. The initial excitement concluded with a move of some class involving Chungy and Mark Davies, which ended with latter crashing to the ground amidst a crowd of defenders. Penalty? Not according to the referee. That was after about fifteen minutes and apart from a Sordell header that went wide, there was little of note or interest for the next half hour. There was some frantic defending, a number of sequences when the ball bounced from head to head without purpose or direction, and a creeping sense that seventeen thousand people had wasted their evening by choosing to spend it at the Reebok. Make that seventeen thousand and eleven, as the Bolton players looked less and less interested in making things happen and the game descended into a lacklustre shambles.
It was no surprise that the team left the field at half time with the nasty sound of booing ringing round the stadium. I don’t like hearing it but it was no more than the players and the management deserved. The boos turned to cheers during the interval when John McGinlay came out to perform the half time draw. ‘Get your boots on John’ was a predictable cry from one disgruntled supporter sat near us.
The second half began in a similar fashion. First Mark Davies saved the day with a desperate tackle, then Derby had the ball in the net for what looked like a legitimate and inevitable goal. Fortunately for the home side the referee had spotted an infringement and the score was disallowed.
With half an hour remaining Owen Coyle took off the ineffective Sordell and introduced the loanee, Benik Afobe. The change wasn’t met with universal acclaim; presumably some would have preferred to see Kevin Davies withdrawn, and I would have liked to have seen Sordell and Afobe together, but Davies had been much the better of our two strikers.
Within a few minutes the debutant almost scored; only a fine save kept his shot out. The substitution had definitely improved matters as Eagles was the next to test the Derby keeper with a fierce drive. Afobe seized on the rebound and fed Chungy but this time the winger chose to cross when he ought to have shot.
The crowd had woken up and, at last we were playing like a team that wanted to win the game. With fifteen minutes to go we won a corner. Eagles swung the ball across, Kevin Davies’s header was pushed out by Fielding and the skipper slammed the rebound into the net. The relief was obvious, the players leapt on the captain in celebration, and cheers rang round the stadium. Afobe had nothing to do with the goal but his introduction had sparked the revival.
Derby looked like a beaten team and we kept going forward without creating a clear cut chance. Then, out of the blue, the visitors almost scored. With a minute to go, Benett sent a low shot to Bogdan’s right. I think the keeper knocked it onto the post, others thought it went under his body; whatever the truth the score remained one nil.
Ironically the officials allowed four minutes of added time, presumably because Derby had taken their time with goal kicks and throws before we scored. However, it was the Wanderers that used the extra minutes to advantage. Just before the curtain fell, Chris Eagles nipped between two defenders in front of goal, kept his head, and placed the ball past Fielding for a second goal. At last we could breathe easy. There was still time for Afobe to bring yet another save from Fielding when he raced clear and almost added a third.
So the crowd went home happy. Well, maybe some of them did, but this supporter couldn’t forget the long, dreary hour in the middle of the game and the mediocre performances of many of the players. Of the players I was seeing for the first time Afobe was the best by some distance. He has pace, strength, and knows where the goals are. He was the one of the few glimmers of hope amidst the gloom. Why he didn’t start the game, only the manager knows. As for the other newcomers, Mills was decent in the air but unbelievably slow, and Andrews, whilst he was one of the few that tended to pass to a white shirt, was largely anonymous. As for the nearly new, neither Mears nor Sordell impressed. The full back was not so good as Steinnsen, the man he replaced, while the striker didn’t look as good as he did for Team GB in the Olympics.
Our best players were the scorers, Kevin Davies and Eagles. Davies had his best game for some time; he won everything in the air and was one of the few that you couldn’t fault for effort. Eagles too worked hard throughout and, though his early shots went wide of the mark, he deserved his goal. Chungy also merited some praise though he was a long way from his best. I’ve always been impressed by the toughness of the slightly built winger but maybe he hasn’t fully recovered his nerve following his injury. Hopefully, there is more to come from him.
Bogdan and Ricketts were both below their best, Knight was probably as good as he is likely to be, which leaves Mark Davies. What is wrong with the little fellow? He was involved in our best move and he made a goal saving tackle, both these moments showed his quality, but otherwise he might as well have not been on the field. He looks overweight and unfit. He is not, and probably never will be, a box to box midfield player, and he suffers more than anyone from Coyle’s addiction to 4-4-2, but there is no excuse for his condition and his display. I got to the stage where I was hoping he would be replaced by Pratley, which says it all.
I’m sorry to begin the season with such a miserable report; my resolve to be objective didn’t last long. I must confess that after the thrills and excitement of the Tour de France and the Olympic Games, I wasn’t really ready for football and beginning our home games with a Tuesday night match didn’t feel right. So, maybe it was me. But I don’t think so. If any of you were thinking of backing Bolton for promotion, hang on to your money. At the moment it looks like it’s going to be a long, hard campaign.