WANDERERS cruised into the second round of the Carabao Cup with a goal spree against Salford City that had to be seen to be believed.
Pride stung by Brandon Thomas-Asante’s 23rd-minute strike, Ian Evatt’s side slipped into a higher gear to demolish the men from League Two with five unanswered goals from there on in.
Elias Kachunga, Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, Kieran Sadlier, Conor Bradley and Dapo Afolayan helped themselves to strikes of impressive quality and variety.
And though Bolton walked off the field feeling hard done by – George Thomason given a straight red for a foul on Luke Bolton – there can be no disappointment with the performance as a whole.
Evatt had been rather ambiguous with his comments on team selection in the build-up to the game, suggesting only that if he made changes, they would not be based on sentimentality.
And, in fairness, while the Bolton boss changed eight names from the side that battered Wycombe into submission a few days earlier, the team could hardly have been described as under-strength.
The night was always about maintaining momentum and the simmering summer euphoria which had followed one of the most complete performances of Evatt’s two-year tenure.
For the first 10 minutes Bolton pawed at their League Two opponents like a cat with a ball of string. Kieran Lee – the only Wanderer with Manchester United connections – was everywhere, a bundle of energy which seemed destined to create the first goal.
But while pressure was put on the Salford penalty box, the men from Moor Lane became increasingly more potent on the break, particularly through the direct running of Brandon Thomas-Asante.
It became patently obvious that Wanderers were not going to have it all their own way.
Joel Dixon made a smart save to push Matt Smith’s header around the post and Will Aimson had to improvise a well-timed challenge on the edge of the box to halt Thomas-Asante after he had run on to Conor McAleny’s flick.
Bodvarsson showed the Whites could be just as threatening on the break as he ran on to Sadlier’s long pass to drill a shot just wide of Tom King’s right-hand post.
The same sequence seemed to be picking Bolton apart, however, and with Thomas-Asante now pushed full-time on Declan John, the Welshman struggled to stem the tide of pressure.
Eventually, Bolton’s resolve broke. That same combination down the Salford right put Asante-Thomas into space and with John unable to do anything but backpedal, the winger picked his spot and drove a shot past Dixon into the bottom corner.
Wanderers had been warned. Their crisp passing had dropped off – and the visitors, who had taken four points from their first two ames in League Two, sensed an upset.
Thankfully, Lee was still buzzing around like a spring chicken, determined to make an impact on the game, and eight minutes later, he did.
Gethin Jones had already caused panic in the Salford back line after raiding down the right and producing one cross. But when Lee picked the ball up with no space to spare on the touchline, he somehow managed to stand a cross up to the far post for Kachunga to head home an equaliser.
The gift was well received. Kachunga had not scored competitively since November but the goal added a spring in his step similar to that seen in pre-season.
Wanderers picked up, the passing quickened, accuracy improved, and it culminated in one of the best team goals we have yet seen from Evatt’s team.
Starting all the way back with Dixon and Jones, Salford’s pressing attack was drawn in, then picked off. There in started a procession of metronomic one-touch passes and darting movement, culminating in Kachunga squaring for Bodvarsson to pass home his first goal of the season.
From there, Bolton were firmly in control. The visitors pushed everything forward at the start of the second half in an effort to get back into the game but their desperation played into the Whites’ hands.
Thomason poked wide after a sprawling counter-attack, Kachunga drove a shot into the side netting when he should have passed across goal. And though Dixon did make a couple of smart stops, also rushing off his line to prove his worth as a sweeper-keeper, the lead was never seriously tested.
Sadlier killed off any resistance. Jack Iredale – on as a half-time sub for John – found him on the edge of the box, and after a touch to steady himself, the wing-back drove a deflected shot past King to settle the contest.
Bradley, also on as a sub, then turned a good night into a great one. The Liverpool youngster had shown an eye for goal in pre-season and with Bolton fans imploring him to “shoot” from 25 yards, he did not disappoint.
There was even room for a fifth, and wouldn’t you know that Lee would be in the thick of it again.
Bradley got down the right, pulled the ball back for the experienced midfielder, who found Afolayan in space to lash a low shot into the net from 10 yards out.
Evatt had time to give debuts to B Team regulars Nelson Khumbeni and Lamine Toure – showing there was room for at least some sentimentality when 5-1 up – and the game looked like it could produce no further drama. But then it did.
Thomason picked up the first red card of his professional career for a foul on Luke Bolton just as two minutes flashed up on the fourth official’s board.
It was a sour note on which to end a celebratory night. One wonders if Bolton’s protests will give the young midfielder a route to appeal?