WANDERERS headed into the second round of the Carabao Cup with a series of goals against Salford City that had to be seen to be believed.
Pride piqued by Brandon Thomas-Asante’s 23rd-minute goal, Ian Evatt’s side kicked into high gear to demolish the men of League Two with five unanswered goals from there.
Elias Kachunga, Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, Kieran Sadlier, Conor Bradley and Dapo Afolayan used shots of impressive quality and variety.
And although Bolton left the pitch feeling badly hit – George Thomason received a straight red for a foul on Luke Bolton – there can be no disappointment with the overall performance.
Evatt had been rather ambiguous with his comments on team selection in the build-up to the game, only suggesting that if he made any changes they wouldn’t be based on sentimentality.
And, in all honesty, with the Bolton boss changing eight names from the side that beat Wycombe into submission days earlier, the side could hardly have been described as understaffed.
The night was still all about maintaining the momentum and simmering summer euphoria that had followed one of the most comprehensive performances of Evatt’s two-year tenure.
For the first 10 minutes, Bolton stomped on their Ligue 2 opponents like a cat with a ball of string. Kieran Lee – the only Wanderer with Manchester United connections – was everywhere, a bundle of energy that seemed destined to create the opening goal.
But as the pressure mounted on the Salford penalty box, Moor Lane’s men grew increasingly powerful at the break, thanks in part to a direct run from Brandon Thomas-Asante.
It became apparent that the Wanderers weren’t going to have it all their 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 from the edge of the box to stop Thomas-Asante after running over Conor McAleny’s flick.
Bodvarsson showed the Whites could be just as threatening at the break as he ran over Kieran Sadlier’s long pass to drill in a shot just wide of Tom King’s right post.
However, the same streak seemed to separate Bolton, and with Thomas-Asante now pushed full-time on Declan John, the Welshman struggled to stem the tide of pressure.
Eventually, Bolton’s resolve shattered. That same combination on the Salford right put Asante-Thomas in space and with John unable to do anything but backpedal, the winger picked his spot and fired past Dixon into the bottom corner.
The wanderers had been warned. Their clean passing had dropped – and the visitors, who had taken four points in their first two Ligue 2 games, felt an upheaval.
Luckily, Lee was still buzzing 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 a cross. But when Lee collected the ball with no space available on the touchline, he managed to place a cross to the far post for Kachunga to head home with an equaliser.
The gift was well received. Kachunga hadn’t scored in competition since November, but the goal added a spring in his step similar to that seen in pre-season.
Wanderers picked up, passing picked up, accuracy improved and it resulted in one of the best team goals we’ve ever seen from Evatt’s side.
Starting all the way back with Dixon and Jones, Salford’s pressing attack was drawn in, then stopped. There began a procession of metronomic one-touch passing and darting moves, culminating with Kachunga squared for Bodvarsson to pass home his first goal of the season.
From there, Bolton was firmly in control. The visitors pushed hard early in the second half to try to get back into the game but their desperation played into the hands of the Whites.
Thomason pushed wide after a sprawling counterattack, Kachunga fired a shot into the side netting when he should have gone past goal. And although Dixon made some smart saves, also rushing off his line to prove his worth as a sweeper-keeper, the lead was never seriously tested.
Sadlier killed all resistance. Jack Iredale – as a half-time substitute for John – found him on the edge of the box, and after a touch to steady himself, the wing-back deflected King to settle the game.
Bradley, also as a substitute, 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 Lee would be in the thick of it again.
Bradley came down the right, took the ball back for the experienced midfielder, who found Afolayan in space to fire a low shot into the net from 10 yards out.
Evatt had time to make his debut with B-team regulars Nelson Khumbeni and Lamine Toure – showing there was room for at least a little sentimentality at 5-1 – and the game looked to be over. to be able to produce drama. But then he did.
Thomason picked up the first red card of his professional career for a foul on Luke Bolton just as two minutes showed on the fourth referee’s board.
It was a sour note on which to end a night of celebration. Wonder if Bolton’s protests will give the young midfielder a path to appeal?
BIG MATCH VERDICT: Bolton Wanderers 5 Salford City 1