What the Salford City cup test could tell us about Bolton Wanderers

·4-min read
The decision to bring Matt Gilks in against Salford proved a huge one for Evatt and Wanderers in November 2020
The decision to bring Matt Gilks in against Salford proved a huge one for Evatt and Wanderers in November 2020

IAN Evatt’s two previous encounters with Salford City provided significant landmarks in his debut season at Bolton Wanderers – a third in the Carabao Cup could now prove equally revealing.

Back when football was forced behind closed doors by the pandemic, Salford’s big budget and high-profile boardroom looked like it would be one of the major roadblocks precluding the Whites’ promotion bid from League Two.

The men from Moor Lane had little league pedigree but their financial backing was deep enough that virtually every signing Evatt tried to make in his first transfer window – not least attacking talisman Eoin Doyle – was done so under heavy competition.

The presence of Manchester United alumni Gary Neville, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs and Co ensured regular publicity but by the time they arrived at the University of Bolton Stadium on November 13, 2020, neither side particularly relished the attention.

Wanderers had started poorly, winning just two of their first 11 games under Evatt. Some fans were questioning his appointment, even more were casting doubt on the club’s recruitment policy.

Salford, meanwhile, sat 10th going into the game having lost just twice, a record seemingly not good enough to save Graham Alexander, who had been sacked on October 12 and briefly replaced by Scholes before Richie Wellens was handed the job full-time.

Bolton’s erratic form had been mirrored by their goalkeeper, Billy Crellin, whose mistakes since joining the club on loan from Fleetwood led to calls for him to be dropped from the side. They were finally heeded that night against Salford, with keeper coach Matt Gilks stepping up to take the gloves in what proved a pivotal move.

The Bolton News:
The Bolton News:

Doyle returned from injury to sink his former Swindon manager Wellens with a neat finish, Bolton’s lead doubled by a wild slice by Salford defender Jordan Turnbull in the second half.

Evatt had lift-off at last, and a run of results in November gave him some breathing room towards the end of the year to make changes in his squad, and the recruitment process, which would have a lasting effect on the season.

By the time the two clubs met again exactly five months later, Bolton were 17 places higher in the table.

A raft of January additions had improved results dramatically and the arrival of Chris Markham as technical performance director – preceded by Tobias Phoenix’s exit as head of football operations – left things looking rosier on the recruitment front.

Bolton had lost just once in their previous 16 games before heading to Moor Lane for a game rescheduled from the previous month because of a waterlogged pitch.

Ninth-placed Salford still had designs on the play-offs but had sacked Wellens and replaced him with Gary Bowyer to revive their fortunes. For long spells they looked the part, but once Lloyd Isgrove had opened the scoring 23 minutes in, Wanderers defended with heroic resolve.

The picture of ex-United cohorts Neville, Giggs, Butt and Roy Keane watching on grimly from the directors’ box only added to the joy for Bolton supporters watching from home as the Whites held on to an impressive result.

Evatt’s men went on to grab the automatic promotion spot while Salford toiled under Bowyer in 2021/22, making little progress the following season, eventually replacing him with Neil Wood.

Two positive results against Mansfield and Swindon in their opening two games suggest another top six push could be on the cards for the Ammies, now in their fourth season in the EFL.

Wanderers have moved on apace since their League Two days and made an impressive start of their own with four points from games against Ipswich and Wycombe.

Tuesday night will give Evatt a chance, however, to test the depth of his squad, and in particular those players who have not featured in the opening fortnight.

Players like Will Aimson, Elias Kachunga, George Thomason, Kieran Sadlier, Joel Dixon and Jon Dadi Bodvarsson have not yet started a game – although their inclusion hardly represents a significant gamble on progression to the second round.

Evatt has spoken about having “no wastage” in the squad he assembled in the four windows which followed that first Salford game and keeping his whole squad in match shape will surely require rotation in the cup competitions.

Unlike previous seasons, when wholesale changes have been made purely to rest first team options, those involved from the start in the Carabao Cup will know they are not far away from the manager’s thoughts.