Undisciplined downfall sees Doncaster Rovers’ good work undone in dramatic fashion at Bolton Wanderers

Unpacking Doncaster Rovers’ defeat at Bolton Wanderers hardly feels like a simple task.

Wednesday, 24th November 2021, 10:38 am
Richie Wellens implores referee Stephen Martin not to send off Joseph Olowu at Bolton Wanderers. Picture: Howard Roe/AHPIX

On the surface it appears pretty clear. It was a game that had three defining periods and three hugely influential incidents, combining to hand three goals and three points to the hosts at the University of Bolton Stadium.

And it left Rovers licking their wounds following another hefty defeat that saw their slow progress stutter once more.

But the complication comes with the fact Rovers opened the game with arguably their best half an hour of football of the season - certainly on the road.

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Aidan Barlow - tussling with Bolton's Elias Kachunga - was good again for Rovers. Picture: Liam Ford/AHPIX

Plus the circumstances and timing of the major incidents combined to whip the rug out from under their feet with devastating consequences.

And, when they could so easily have capitulated under tremendous pressure in the second half, they defended stoutly and resolutely to keep the score down.

So while there were wounds to lick, there were also aspects of the performance to carry forward as they bid to accelerate progress into a genuine fight for survival.

But they must also address the lack of clarity in thought that ultimately led to their rapid downfall inside the last ten minutes of the first half.

Jon Taylor missed a glorious opportunity to give Rovers the lead. Picture: Howard Roe/AHPIX

For two sides whose hefty injury lists had been well documented heading into the meeting, neither limped into the contest, with both looking to start quickly.

But after a very open first few minutes when it appeared Bolton’s width would be a major headache for the visitors, Rovers went into the ascendency with an approach that is perhaps the blueprint for future away performances.

Tenacious in midfield with the energy of Ethan Galbraith, Matt Smith and Tommy Rowe, they cut out so many slack passes and looked to spring forward quickly, taking advantage of big spaces in behind Bolton.

Aidan Barlow - starting his first league game since August - relished having space ahead of him to run or play into, while Jon Taylor looked much more like his old self on his second outing since injury.

What let them down at times - and this is a familiar story - was the decision-making with the final ball, seeing swift counterattacks break down before Trotters keeper Joel Dixon could be fully tested.

But with defining moment one, the choices made could hardly have been better.

Barlow pinched possession away on half way and sent Joe Dodoo powering forward with a sublime through ball before the striker touched a pass across the face of the box for the on-rushing Taylor.

With the goal at his mercy, he smashed the ball over the bar, missing a golden opportunity to cement Rovers’ impressive start to the game and increase the tetchiness in the mood among the home supporters.

Defining moment two came not long after as Taylor’s miss was ruthlessly punished.

Elias Kachunga curled a simple ball through the box that the Rovers defence simply did not react to. One man who did was Eoin Doyle, who appeared unmarked at the back post and slotted in.

The Rovers bench raged, claiming Doyle was offside but it was certainly tight, and the lack of close attention shown to the striker did their case no favours.

Richie Wellens was booked for his protestations and the tetchiness switched from the stands to on the pitch.

It was during the few minutes that followed where Rovers, clearly feeling collectively aggrieved, lost the composure they had shown in the early stages. And their shape.

Joseph Olowu was caught too high up the pitch and raced back to recover.

But his attempt to commit a professional foul would ultimately lead to Rovers’ downfall.

The young centre left his feet to trip Dapo Afolayan, who was looking to race away.

A card was inevitably coming but with the nature of the infringement, a yellow one looked the most likely to be shown.

Bolton’s bench and players reacted furiously. Several raced up to shove Olowu, sparking a melee that delayed referee Stephen Martin’s decision - one that was surely influenced by the outrage before him as he flashed red.

Within five minutes Rovers had gone from the team on top to sitting at the bottom of a valley next to the mountain they needed to climb.

And it got worse. When they needed to dig in and limp to the break, they were easily cut open again, deep into stoppage time.

Afolayan skinned Branden Horton and drilled across goal with Kachunga making a similarly unimpeded run to Doyle to slot in at the far post.

It was hard not to fear the worst in a second half where a repetitive pattern of play was showcased over and over.

Rovers - with Tommy Rowe dropping back to centre half after Olowu’s dismissal - were pinned deep into their own territory, with the Bolton back line rarely less than 20 yards inside the opposition half.

The numbers advantage allowed the Trotters to play through them with ease and chance after chance came - albeit without Louis Jones being tested much as he kept the starting shirt for a third successive game.

Bolton met a determined Rovers defence who battled hard to keep the scoreline down.

So it was unfortunate for the visitors that a scruffy effort left them three goals down. George Thomason scuffed a shot that kicked up off the outstretched leg of Horton and looped over the prone Jones.

With more than half an hour to go, fears were understandable of another huge scoreline but the manner of the defending prevented it from happening, even if the pressure could have been eased more at times with more sensible use of the rare occasions Rovers were in possession.

The extent to which this defeat was a damaging one to Rovers will be told only in how they respond in the next game.

What was positive among the madness must be carried forward to ensure there are not more nights like this.

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In these confusing and worrying times, local journalism is more vital than ever. Thanks to everyone who helps us ask the questions that matter by taking out a subscription or buying a paper. We stand together. Liam Hoden, editor.