6 November ~ With Manchester City, Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea all up within the first seven games of the season, early expectations in Bolton were adjusted accordingly. However, a string of unacceptably bottle-free hidings against the big boys and further defeats by Norwich, Sunderland and Swansea have caused blind panic to descend at the Reebok. Some fans are already drawing comparison with the 1980s, when financial turmoil off the field and a dearth of quality on it saw the Trotters down in Division Four before the decade was out.
So where has it all gone wrong? Worryingly for the Wanderers, today's home game against Stoke City takes the crisis full circle. Six months ago, Bolton were eighth in the Premier League and just one game away from their first FA Cup Final appearance in over 50 years. A week later they were mauled 5-0 by Stoke in the semi-final. Of the 16 league games since, they have lost 13 and won just three.
Injury has undoubtedly played its part in the slide. Stuart Holden's return from a six-month absence amounted to no more than 90 League Cup minutes against Aston Villa. A routine scan revealed problems that will keep him out for a further six months. Lee Chung-Yong's double fracture in pre-season has left Owen Coyle over-reliant on Chris Eagles's fragile confidence. Long-term injuries to Sam Ricketts, Tyrone Mears and Manchester City refugee Dedryck Boyata have left Gretar Steinsson at right-back, despite the best efforts of both Coyle and the Reebok boo-boys.
Stoke's problem is an altogether more welcome one, with European involvement making today's game their seventh in 21 days. The Potters have made light of their heavy schedule so far. They have taken middle order in the Premier League and are top of a gruelling Europa League group with ten points from four games. Astute summer signings Wilson Palacios, Jonathan Woodgate, Matthew Upson, Peter Crouch and Cameron Jerome have all settled well. Manager Tony Pulis looks to have the strength in depth to cope with a busy campaign.
Though not nearly as brutish as the press would have you believe, Stoke will have more than enough about them to put the willies up a worryingly weak-willed Bolton midfield. Eagles and Martin Petrov don't have a tackle between them. Darren Pratley has so far struggled to find his feet in the top flight. And, although Nigel Reo-Coker talks a good game, it has not yet extended to him actually playing one. Mark Davies has been used surprisingly sparingly and Gael Kakuta is yet to make anything like the same impression on loan from Chelsea as Daniel Sturridge did last season.
Bolton's midfield is all too easily bypassed as a four, so last week's switch to a five-man midfield at Swansea was long overdue. The experiment was prematurely derailed by Ricardo Gardner's dismissal early in the second half, but Coyle needs to persevere if he is to drag his side out of their current slump. Fabrice Muamba needs to be brought in from the cold. In a squad almost completely devoid of creative spark, Mark Davies looks the player most likely to ensure summer signing David Ngog gets at least a kick from time to time.
Whatever permutation Pulis puts out at the Reebok, Stoke are set up to cause problems. Their defence is strong. Matthew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant will pose a stern test for the home side’s beleaguered full-backs. It will be a long afternoon for Gary Cahill and David Wheater, unless the Bolton midfield can offer them something in the way of respite.
A 5-0 defeat in the biggest game of their careers should provide all the motivation the Bolton players need for this one, but there are genuine concerns that Coyle's squad lacks the stomach for a fight. Whatever the outcome here, Bolton’s battle will extend well beyond this afternoon. Jon Callow