Despite having to replace Owen Coyle early in the season, Bolton Wanderers were eventually disappointed to miss out on the play-offs on the final day
It tells you all you need to know about this season's Championship that Bolton were masters of their own destiny right up to the last kick, despite more or less giving it up as a bad job sometime around turn of the year. A fine run of form from mid-February put Wanderers on the verge of the play-offs, only for the season to be played out in a final-day microcosm.
At home against Blackpool there was a dismal start, unlikely redemption and, right at the death, crushing disappointment, as failure to find a winner saw them miss out on goal difference.
It's easy to put the blame on Owen Coyle, who lost his job ten games and just 11 points into the season. The apparent lack of preparation and fitness that characterised those early games was confirmed shortly after Coyle's departure, first by caretaker manager Jimmy Phillips, then by Dougie Freedman, who spoke of having to give players a "pre-season" training regime shortly after his arrival on October 25. Given those issues, a quick fix was never likely. Despite beating champions-elect Cardiff at the Reebok in his first game, Freedman had to wait until the end of February before his new team was able to register back-to-back wins.
By then, he'd signed Craig Dawson on loan from West Brom. The England Under-21 captain made an instant impact, scoring four times in his first six appearances and marshalling an often-rudderless back four through five consecutive home clean sheets as Bolton climbed the table. Another Freedman signing, Medo Kamara, has shown plenty in the early days of a three-and-a-half-year contract to suggest he'll be a Premier League footballer soon enough, even if Bolton's efforts to return there continue to stall.
Coyle can't carry the can for all the season's shortcomings. Injuries played a big part, with David Wheater, Matt Mills and Mark Davies all absent for long spells, and Stuart Holden starting and finishing his season an hour at a time on a month's loan at Sheffield Wednesday, the latest step in his recovery from a Jonny Evans "tackle" in March 2011.
The players, too, must take some responsibility for sleepwalking through the first half of a season that some of them thought was going to be easy. Even Freedman comes under scrutiny – for all the improvement and optimism generated since his arrival, the decision to hand teenager Rob Hall a debut in the must-win game against Blackpool was mystifying.
With the club's four recognised strikers managing just 22 goals between them, Freedman will need to find some more in the summer, which might go some way towards addressing Bolton's woes away from home. There'll be significant gaps to fill elsewhere in the squad too, with key loan players returning to parent clubs and Marcos Alonso seemingly set for Serie A with Fiorentina.
Paradoxically, this season has served to both temper expectation and raise hope and, though Freedman has plenty of work to do in the coming weeks, Bolton fans feel that the future is in safe hands. That future won't include club captain Kevin Davies, whose slightly acrimonious exit should not be allowed to sour ten years of exemplary service. Jon Callow