In the 133-year history of the Football League, few teams have turned their season around quite as quickly as Bolton Wanderers.
On February 8, Bolton sat 20th in League Two, just three places above the trap door to non-league. Today, just seven weeks later, they sit fourth, level on points with the automatic promotion places.
Unbeaten in 13 matches, collecting 11 wins and 35 points in the process, no team anywhere in England’s top four divisions can match their form right now - not even Manchester City.
But Bolton’s manager has done this sort of thing before. After gaining plaudits for turning non-league Barrow into ‘Barrowcelona’, the highly-rated Ian Evatt is starting to work his magic again.
The journey in to Saturday’s match at Forest Green Rovers was a reminder of Bolton’s fall over recent years. Where once they visited metropolises like Istanbul, Madrid and Lisbon in the UEFA Cup, this was a drive through winding country lanes to the tiny town of Nailsworth, at the foot of a valley in deepest Gloucestershire.
Bolton had never visited The New Lawn before, and the absence of fans added to the feeling of remoteness - the game taking place while farm vehicles scuttled back and forth in a nearby field, while some sort of lumberjack periodically fired up a chainsaw.
The Trotters had lost at home to Forest Green on the opening day of a 2020/21 campaign that, up until relatively recently, had looked certain to be the worst in the club’s history. Playing in the fourth tier for only the second time ever - the other campaign ended with automatic promotion in 1987/88 - Bolton endured a horror start, suffering defeat in their first five matches in all competitions. It put them 22nd in League Two, their lowest ever league position.
A 4-0 loss at Leyton Orient followed, but a corner seemed to be turned when they won five consecutive matches in November - moving Bolton up to ninth, and earning Evatt the division’s manager of the month award. It was a false dawn, though. The Trotters lost 6-3 at home to Port Vale in their next match, winning just one of nine games to slump back to the lower reaches of the division by late January.
Appointed to implement an attractive and winning brand of football, Evatt had yet to convince a set of fans he’d never had the chance to establish a rapport with - the club haven’t been allowed to welcome supporters to the University of Bolton Stadium for a single game this season.
Defensively the Trotters looked shaky, and Evatt had inadvertently made national headlines by publicly criticising 20-year-old goalkeeper Billy Crellin, after a mistake in a match at Cambridge. The on-loan Fleetwood man saved penalties in each of his next two games, but further errors saw Crellin replaced by 38-year-old goalkeeping coach Matt Gilks, who has kept the gloves ever since.
Evatt, though, retained the support of the Bolton board, who’d headhunted him from Barrow in July. Instead, it was head of football operations Tobias Phoenix who departed mid-season, seen by some to have been significantly responsible for poor recruitment in the summer, when many signings turned out to be disappointing.
Bolton had good reason to keep faith in Evatt, who’d proven before that a slow start could lead to blistering success. Just last season - only the second campaign of the former Blackpool defender’s managerial career - Evatt had seen his Barrow side slip into the relegation zone after winning just two of their first nine matches in the National League.
They won 16 of their next 20, to surge clear at the top of the table. When coronavirus halted the season, they were declared champions on points per game. Evatt had guided Barrow back into the Football League for the first time since 1972.
He’d also gained attention for the manner in which he’d achieved those results - with a devotion to passing football. Barrow became so attractive to watch, so successful at opening up opponents with clever patterns of play, that the Barrowcelona nickname quickly stuck.
At Barrow, Evatt achieved that largely with a 3-5-2 system, using it to dominate possession like Brendan Rodgers has often done during his managerial career. At Bolton, his faith in the system wasn’t being rewarded. He stuck with it until January, but could never quite make it work without creating vulnerabilities in defence.
Evatt switched to four at the back, and Bolton have never looked back - also because of the players he recruited to play in the new system. Trusted to mastermind signings alone during the January transfer window, the manager added experienced midfielder Kieran Lee - a free agent since leaving Sheffield Wednesday in the summer - plus attacking left back Declan John.
Then on deadline day on February 1, came Dapo Afolayan, MJ Williams (the MJ stands for Michael Jordan, basketball fans) and most intriguingly, Marcus Maddison - one of the best players in League One a year earlier, before failed moves to Hull and Charlton.
While Maddison hasn’t been a resounding success (he was sent off 12 minutes into his debut), the others have been. Bolton have looked like a new team, with much greater quality. They sat 20th after their match at Salford was postponed on February 6, but in just seven weeks since then, they’ve surged up the league at warp speed, helped by a packed schedule including five midweek fixtures.
Possession has been dominated in pretty much every game, as Evatt finally got his team playing in the manner he wanted. That playing style is a contrast to almost every other team in the lower leagues, perhaps explaining why his sides have needed a significant period of adjustment. Once the penny drops, it’s a whole different ball game.
By Saturday, they’d moved to within two points of third-placed Forest Green, with the chance to leapfrog the team occupying the last of the automatic promotion places. Within a minute of the lunchtime kick-off, the hosts lost star striker Jamille Matt to a gruesome hand injury, and rarely posed a threat after that - partly because of the form of Bolton’s 6ft 5in centre back Ricardo Santos, a perennial presence in the League Two team of the week in recent times, after a nervous start to the season.
Six minutes before half time, former Aston Villa forward Nathan Delfouneso darted down the right and whipped in a pinpoint cross for Eoin Doyle to crisply volley home - a moment of quality that few League Two defences are equipped to stop. It was the Irishman’s 16th league goal of the season - not since 2002 had any Bolton player surpassed 12 for a campaign.
The visitors saw the game out relatively comfortably - a 1-0 win moving them into the automatic promotion places, a full 23 points above 20th spot, even if results later in the day saw them drop to fourth below Tranmere on goal difference. Bolton’s 13-match unbeaten run is the longest in England’s top four divisions.
Victory was celebrated not just on the field at the New Lawn, but also on the hill overlooking the stadium, where two or three Bolton fans stood throughout, peering through the trees, taking a rare opportunity to see their team in the flesh.
Trotters supporters deployed stepladders to watch over a wall at Barrow earlier in the season - when Bolton bagged a late winner at Cheltenham in front of a crowd of 1,685 in December, a lone away fan darted to the front of the stand to celebrate with the players, even though officially only home supporters were allowed in. Unable to watch his team play since March 10 last year, the excitement was probably understandable.
“Bolton fans are everywhere,” smiles Evatt as he talks to FFT post-match. “It’s a massive club - at times, it baffles me just how big. Our iFollow numbers are huge.”
Indeed, Bolton have had the fifth highest number of iFollow subscribers in the entire EFL this season.
There may be no handy Barrowcelona moniker for the Trotters - the closest we can come up with is Boltonrussia Dortmund, and we don’t think that’s going to work - but the ethos is now the same as it was in Cumbria. Evatt’s Bolton have been starting to look like Barrowcelona 2.0, new and improved.
“We’re starting to get it and pick it up,” the manager says of the style of play he’s implemented. “We’ve added some quality to the squad that can do the things I’m asking them to do. We don’t score rubbish goals - they’re always good passing moves, incisive moves, higher quality than I’d say this division offers you at times.
“I’ve got a group of hungry players - winning becomes an addiction, and they’re now addicted to winning. We’ve suffered this season and it’s that suffering that’s motivating us now. We don’t want to disappoint anyone any more. We want to get this job done.”
That job, as far as the manager is concerned, is automatic promotion. With Evatt at the helm, the signs certainly look good right now.
“Everyone loves playing for him,” says Doyle, who’s played for 12 different clubs during his career, and has enough experience to know a good manager when he sees one. “He’s got his man management spot on, he’s a good guy and he puts a lot of detail into how he sets us up, how we implement it on the training ground before we come out here on a Saturday.
“The way we play is great for me. I’m a type of striker that’s not going to score out of nothing, I need service, so it’s heaven for me, it suits my game. We’re the best team in the league on our day, and we’re turning up week in, week out at the moment.
“At the end of January we were 19th, and we would have snapped your hand off for 10th. Then, within the space of five or six weeks, I don’t want to say too much, but we’d be disappointed if we… well, you know.”
Doyle stopped short of completing that sentence, wary of jinxing things, but it was clear what he was about to say. Bolton’s surge under Ian Evatt has been so remarkable that, providing they continue in the same vein, they’re currently on course for League One.
For their manager, it would be a second successive promotion, after two of the hottest of all hot streaks. Just imagine what he could do with a fast start.
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