WANDERERS dumped Championship Barnsley out of the Carabao Cup with a thrilling 5-4 penalty shootout win at the UniBol.
Joel Dixon saved superbly from Devante Cole to leave Josh Sheehan with the task of smashing in the decisive spot kick, sending Ian Evatt’s side into the second round.
Bolton had exited the competition at the first time of asking in five of the last six seasons – but they fully deserved to come out on top after a goalless 90 minutes.
And it was Dixon who grabbed the headlines in a week where we have done nothing but talk about keepers, diving low to his left to push away Cole’s spot kick from inside the post.
Evatt said he was not planning to make “wholesale changes” to the side that had engaged in the six-goal thriller against MK Dons but his squad nevertheless provided some talking points.
Dixon replaced Matt Gilks in goal and had already stirred the great UniBol keeper debate with an eye-catching early save from Victor Adebojayo.
Ricardo Santos and Kieran Lee made their expected return to the side but on the left side of defence Liam Gordon lined up in a Bolton shirt for the first time since last November, when he turned out in the EFL Trophy against Newcastle United’s Under-21s.
Nathan Delfouneso and Lloyd Isgrove also made their first starts of the season but there was no place in the squad for Dennis Politic.
Wanderers took some time to find their feet in the first half, conceding the early chance to Adebojayo which was stabbed into the net by Cauley Woodrow from an offside position, then allowing Clarke Oduor an even closer glimpse of goal a few minutes later.
The Barnsley man was picked out well by Jordan Williams’ low cross but got his feet in a muddle and allowed a grateful Dixon to drop on the ball six yards out.
Though the visitors were pleasing on the eye when they poured forward, Wanderers were given space to play. And as the half wore on they manufactured a few good chances of their own.
Eoin Doyle showed a little bit of hesitancy after Gordon had played him through on goal, allowing Michal Helik to make a saving challenge, and Antoni Sarcevic drilled a low shot just wide of the post after Delfouneso’s cross had fallen nicely to him on the edge of the box.
Wanderers worked hard out of possession but struggled to find the right pass around the Barnsley penalty box, meaning they never quite made the most of the slim advantages they gained.
Oduor had another good sight of goal after the break when Gordon’s poor clearance fell to his feet 10 yards out but, not for the first time on the night, he lacked the composure to properly test Dixon.
Wanderers continued on a path of ‘nearly but not quite’. Isgrove burst into the box just before the hour mark, trying unsuccessfully to tee-up sub, Amadou Bakayoko, with a cheeky backheel, and then Lee broke down the right on to a well-weighted pass from Gethin Jones, bringing a save out of Walton at his near post.
Jones then caused chaos in the Barnsley box with another good cross from the byline which bounced off the helpless Jasper Moon and trickled agonisingly past the upright.
Bakayoko’s arrival off the bench definitely gave Wanderers more momentum. Just as he did at the weekend the former Coventry City man revelled in ruffling defenders’ feathers, and if he continues in this fashion you can see him proving popular with the UniBol faithful.
Doyle had chased and harried all he could by 65 minutes and was replaced by Elias Kachunga, giving us a better look at what he will bring to the side as he played on the left side of the front three.
The former Huddersfield Town man certainly looked to get involved, on and off the ball, and showed a couple of classy touches linking up with Sarcevic and Bakayoko late in the piece.
Barnsley’s attacking threat had not entirely dried up – sub Cole keeping Wanderers on their toes with a deft header – but the greater intent to win in normal time was definitely coming from the home side.
Besides, Santos grew in stature as the game went on and finished the game imperiously against the Championship men, potentially giving his manager a real selection problem going to Plough Lane this weekend.
Sheehan nearly spared us the drama of penalties, curling a late shot that was parried away by Bury-born keeper Walton. Bakayoko also went mighty close with a follow-up header, which landed on the roof of the net.
The same man went close in stoppage time when he got his head to Isgrove’s corner, with the whole UniBol on the edge of their seat.
That continued until the last set of penalties as Sarcevic, Isgrove, Bakayoko and Kachunga all scored their efforts for the Whites.
Dixon then did what he needed to do, and Sheehan never looked likely to miss.
Who said we needed to focus on the league?