Bolton Wanderers supporters are in need of a lift. There’s an air of forbearance around the Reebok; a sense of the same old same old. The first game of Dougie Freedman’s reign, the stirring, Ngog inspired comeback against Cardiff, suggested a boost was imminent. The optimism gradually dissipated amidst a series of draws, leading to a prospect that has become increasingly bleak.
The signing of a striker from Barnsley was only going to create a spark if he scored a hat trick in his first game but his non-appearance in the match day squad meant that that, always unlikely fantasy , wouldn’t happen. On top of all that, Millwall are probably the least adrenaline-boosting opponents in the league.
In fact, the game wasn’t that bad. At times we passed the ball well, we certainly created chances, and, in the first half, Chungy looked as if he might provide the inspiration we so badly need. But other aspects of the game were all too familiar and, by the end, I was left feeling flat and frustrated.
The Freedman random selection generator restored Ricketts to the right back spot in the following 4-4-2 line up: Bogdan; Ricketts, Knight, Ream, Alonso; Eagles, Spearing, Andrews, Chung; Kevin Davies, Ngog. Young Josh Vela was among the substitutes following his long absence through injury.
We began brightly with Chung looking like his old self; he flitted among the burly Millwall defenders like Shakespeare’s Ariel. Ngog was also lively and he flashed one pass across the goalmouth that only needed a touch; a goal looked increasingly likely. Sure enough it came, but at the wrong end, and it was the result of some dreadful defending. Keith Andrews badly under hit a pass, Keogh picked up the loose ball in the penalty box, and Knight brought him down with a clumsy, panic-induced tackle. Andrews’s error created a dangerous situation but the Millwall man still had plenty to do; there was no excuse for the rash challenge. Keogh gave Bogdan no chance from the spot.
We still continued to dominate and the more Chung saw of the ball, the better we looked, but we couldn’t break down the visitor’s well organised defence. Ngog and Chung tried from distance and Ngog miskicked badly when he might have scored. Despite superior possession however, chances were few and Millwall always looked dangerous on the break. Our best chance of a goal was Chung and when the Korea player drifted into the middle, Shittu brought him down with a clumsy trip just inside the box. Up stepped Andrews to compensate for his earlier mistake and score his fourth penalty out of four.
There were still ten minutes to go to half time but we couldn’t make further impact. Ngog took a knock and looked badly injured; it seemed unlikely he would reappear after the interval. Whilst contemplating his likely replacement Samantha and I ate the fag end of our Christmas cake; lovely.
Against the odds, Ngog appeared to have recovered, which, as he had been the better of our two strikers, was all to the good. The game continued as before. Eagles tried one of his Hollywood shots from distance but it went straight to the goalkeeper and Ricketts bamboozled his opposing full back and crossed well only for Eagles to shoot over the bar.
As the half progressed, however, Millwall came more into the game and, with our defence looking far from secure, for the first time it seemed possible we might lose. With twenty minutes remaining, the manager replaced Chung with Afobe. The little winger had not been as prominent in the second half but given Afobe’s failure to make an impact on any game to date it was a strange decision.
We continued to plug away and we regained the initiative but the Millwall players were always ready to throw themselves in front of the ball. If only our lot could defend with such resolution. Alonso went close with a top class shot, low and towards the corner but the visitor’s keeper managed to keep it out. Eagles gave way to Sordell; we now had four strikers on the field. It worked for Bruce Rioch’s team in the famous play-off final comeback and it looked as if it might work for Dougie. It was all Wanderers now, as we forced a series of corners. From one a Kevin Davies header was hacked off the goal line with the goalie beaten and, a minute later, Sordell sent a left foot shot just wide, when he might have scored a Bolton career-changing goal. It was not to be. Four minutes of added time revived hopes but Millwall remained doggedly determined and another two points went down the pan.
It wasn’t an awful display but we had only managed to score from the penalty spot against a defence built around Danny Shittu. Those of you that remember the big centre half when he played for us will realise that’s some criticism. Shittu probably relished the prospect of competing against Kevin Davies. What he couldn’t handle was the small, quick, tricky player, exemplified by his trip on Chung. If Sordell had been given more than ten minutes he might well have prospered against the former Wanderer.
The match sponsors made Alonso the Man of the Match and I had little quarrel with that; the left back had a decent game. He will always be better going forward, which is a problem given our shaky defence but, apart from being nutmegged late in the game, he was sound. Chung lit up the first half but faded, possibly the result of being continually chopped down. No-one else stood out. Eagles had a stinker; he could do nothing right. His early season form has withered on the vine but with Petrov apparently on his way to Spain, there is little competition for his place. Kevin Davies was well contained in the first half but was far more effective later and almost won the game with his header, while Ngog was his familiar mix of brilliance and rubbish. Just where Craig Davies is going to fit in remains to be seen but, if he can score goals, he will be welcome.
The main problem was the lack of someone in central midfield to play the telling ball. Consequently, it didn’t quite happen; we promised much but couldn’t quite deliver. Is it the players that aren’t good enough? Is it the manager? Is it 4-4-2? I don’t know but something needs to change.
Of course, there is always the King over the Water. Stuart Holden’s impending return is eagerly awaited, rather like De Gaulle after the war. The French general did a good job for his country on his reappearance and many Bolton fans think the American’s recovery from injury might be the spark that we need. He played sixty minutes for the Reserves last week with no reported reaction but after fifteen months absence we shouldn’t expect too much. David Wheater and Mark Davies are also on the way back and Josh Vela is already available. Supplemented by one or two further January signings we will have a few straws at which to clutch. It’s not much but it’s all we’ve got.