AFTER playing the big bluff, Ian Evatt finally hit the jackpot with a fully-deserved win against Salford.
Whether mind games in the build-up to a televised clash made any difference to the outcome is debatable but after all the kidology on what side would be taking to the field in front of the TV cameras, it was nice to see one actually turn up.
Eoin Doyle’s first-half strike gave Bolton an advantage doubled by a freakish own goal from Jordan Turnbull.
And though Wanderers had Matt Gilks to thank for an outstanding save in each half to keep his side in the ascendancy, this was a night where Evatt’s side played second fiddle in possession but looked infinitely more dangerous in attack.
Evatt had made sure it was known that three of his key players – Doyle, Antoni Sarcevic and Gethin Jones – were unlikely to feature in his Thursday press conference.
He had also left the question of whether he would drop the out-of-sorts Billy Crellin hanging in the air overnight in the hope that an element of surprise could aid his side.
The Bolton manager has arguably been unable to name his best side all season – at least a fully-fit one – and the difference was quite something to behold.
Within the first few minutes Doyle had a chance to open the scoring as Peter Kioso ventured forward on the right and fed the returning Irishman with a decent ball. Perhaps he was getting the ring-rust out of his system, but the first touch was uncharacteristically heavy and the visitors were able to clear.
With the constant commentary from Gilks outdoing anything which was coming from the gantry or the press box, Wanderers’ defensive line looked as organised as it had for any 45 minutes this season.
Typical of a derby, the football was frantic and disjointed for the opening 20 minutes. But the Whites began to get on top in midfield and Jones was unlucky with a cross-shot gathered by Vaclav Hladky after some good build-up involving Tutte and Crawford.
Not long after that, Doyle got the type of chance he has made a career out of burying. Sarcevic’s hustle in the middle of the park wrestled control of the ball and his crisp pass allowed the striker to take one touch to set himself before firing into the bottom corner.
The goal woke Salford up a little. And had it not been for a brilliant reaction save from Gilks they might have draw level. Brandon Thomas-Asante drilled a fierce shot from 20 yards out which took a nick off Sarcevic but the former Scotland international turned back the clock with a save right out of the top drawer.
Wanderers have been better in possession this season. And there were times when over-confidence crept in where Evatt would least want to see it.
Once again, though, Ryan Delaney and Ricardo Santos were on message. Salford rarely threatened close in on goal during the first half but when they did draw closer, two of Bolton’s more consistent customers were on hand.
Richie Wellens clearly didn’t like what he was seeing and threw on Luke Burgess and Bruno Andrade to change his focus of attack in the second half.
The question was, could Bolton finally sew two halves of encouraging football together?
Within 20 seconds, the good work was nearly undone. Sub Andrade got in behind Delaney – who appealed strongly for offside – but thankfully dragged his shot wide.
Bolton old boy Oscar Threlkeld also put a shot in from the left edge of the box which took a nasty deflection off Alex Baptiste but, again, Gilks was right behind it.
Salford were finally finding their way in the game and another old boy, Jason Lowe, nearly put them level with a snap-shot from just inside the box which was heroically blocked by Kioso at full stretch.
The visitors were enjoying long spells of possession and though Wanderers continued to look solid as they shifted side to side, their habit of gifting the ball straight back to their opponents was always a risky one.
The more cynical among us could see how this was going to go. But, for once, Lady Luck was on Bolton’s side.
Doyle put pressure on Turnbull as he tried to defend a long punt bouncing back towards his own keeper – but instead of trying to clear to the stands, the Salford man inexplicably volleyed over his own keeper, the ball bouncing into the back of an empty net.
The drama wasn’t over, though. Gilks had to make another crucial stop when Andrade barged through the middle, playing in Ian Henderson whose powerful shot bounced off the keeper’s knees to safety.
Sarcevic then should have made the game completely safe. Doyle’s unselfish pass on the edge of the area put the captain in on goal but he went for a chipped finish, rather than power, and the ball dropped over the bar.