EXCELLENT EVATT: HOW BOLTON WENT FROM LEAGUE TWO STRUGGLERS TO THE VERGE OF PROMOTION
Updated: Apr 27
Saturday’s meeting between Morecambe and Bolton was arguably the biggest game of the EFL season so far.
Wanderers ran out 1-0 winners to move to the brink of an immediate return to League One, although an early red card for the Shrimps’ Kelvin Mellor meant you couldn’t read too much into the game.
Results are all that matter this late in the campaign, though, as the three points took Bolton’s buffer to the play-offs to four points, which signifies an incredible turnaround from when the Trotters sat 19th in the division at the start of February.
Amid a considerable overhaul in the squad during the off-season, they were still installed as favourites to win League Two, and they made those odds look silly with just one win in their first nine.
Incredibly, Ian Evatt brought in 18 players before the start of the campaign, and although the likes of Eoin Doyle and Antoni Sarcevic were among them, it clearly took a while for all the new additions to gel.
Despite some signs of promise, Bolton went on another very poor run at the turn of the year to leave Evatt fearing for his job after just a few months in Greater Manchester.
You could say that the former Barrow manager didn’t really help himself, calling out his own players when they didn’t perform to his liking, most notably goalkeeper Billy Crellin after he made a mistake against Cambridge.
In hindsight, maybe that has toughened up his squad and allowed them to go on the run they’ve been on, an initial 14-game unbeaten streak which has been swiftly followed by four more wins after the run was ended at Newport.
It leaves Wanderers requiring just three more points to complete a remarkable turnaround and seal automatic promotion.
There have been several key factors in this upturn, one of them the performances of Eoin Doyle, who has returned to his Swindon form and is now on 18 goals for the campaign.
Doyle is the kind of striker that needs good service to thrive, though, and the January signings of MJ Williams and Oladapo Afolayan have certainly helped that.
Lloyd Isgrove’s excellent displays of late have also contributed, but without doubt the main reason for Bolton’s resurgence is the switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation.
They’ve always been one of the more possession-based teams in the league, but in the first half of the season, Evatt employed a five-at-the-back system, which wasn’t getting the most out of the players.
Around the start of January, the Trotters switched to four-at-the-back, and it has worked wonders.
The centre-back pairing of Alex Baptiste and Ricardo Santos has really flourished, with the latter being one of the standout defenders in League Two of late.
Meanwhile, Gethin Jones is having the best season of his career at right-back and another January addition in left-back Declan John has also impressed.
With the likes of Doyle, Afolayan and Isgrove going forward, they have the firepower to blow away most teams at the level, and those players are given a solid foundation by the midfield pairing of Williams and Sheffield Wednesday stalwart Kieran Lee.
Wanderers may have had to settle for the play-offs if it wasn’t for that win at Morecambe, but credit must go to Evatt for averting disaster with both smart recruitment and adaptability that should have Bolton back in League One come August.