But reasons for hope against Ipswich
1 February ~ Bolton Wanderers travel to Portman Road to take on Ipswich Town having arguably entered the most difficult period of their history. Eleven years of Premier League football has served to raise both expectation and expenditure and, with the advent of Financial Fair Play offering little respite for clubs with incomings far outweighed by outgoings, manager Dougie Freedman is working under constraints perhaps even greater than those that threatened the club's very existence in the mid-1980s.
While Bolton's widely reported £163m debt isn't quite as dramatic as the papers would have you believe, the reality is that FFP demands longer arms and shorter pockets. Freedman cleared a reported £30,000 from the weekly wage bill when David N'gog finally moved to Swansea last week, but the buyers' queue for the rest of his overpaid underachievers is not long one. Freedman has spoken openly about the problems of working with "a nucleus of players who are simply not good enough for the football club", barely stopping short of accusing some of his post-Premier League big earners of going through the motions to pick up their wages.
Tyrone Mears is a case in point. Mears hasn't played since the 4-1 defeat at Blackburn in August, with Freedman preferring to break up his best central defensive partnership when Kevin McNaughton's loan from Cardiff City expired in December. Tim Ream went to left-back, Zat Knight returned alongside Matt Mills in the middle and goals ensued. The 7-1 reverse at Reading last time out was the club's heaviest defeat since 1982.
With such a fragile defence to protect, Freedman's preference for the solid over the spectacular is understandable, though his variations around a 4-2-3-1 theme have frustrated a home crowd who rightly expect to have more to show at this stage of the season than two wins and eight draws. But, despite horror shows at Blackburn and Reading, Bolton's cautious approach has been more effective away from the Reebok, so they won't travel to Portman Road bereft of all hope, particularly as their hosts have only won two of their last nine games.
Bolton got through deadline day without losing Lee Chung-Yong and Mark Davies, so they can be expected to provide creativity and support for new boy Lukas Jutkiewicz. The former Coventry striker is likely to make his first start on loan from Middlesbrough, though his recent record suggests Wanderers may have to look elsewhere for goals as they seek their first win since Boxing Day. Ream broke his nose in a midweek collision with QPR's Charlie Austin but is expected to be fit. However, with promising youngster Hayden White making his debut from the bench at Loftus Road, it will be interesting to see if Freedman opts to reunite Ream and Mills at the heart of his defence.
Bolton's current predicament isn't too far removed from the one they faced this time 12 months ago. You'd be unlikely to find anyone who expects a repeat of last season's late surge into the play-off reckoning, but a positive outcome at Portman Road might just start one or two dreaming again. Jon Callow