City 1, Bolton 4
There must be something about the sight of Owen Coyle in pre-season that brings the best out of Steve Williams.
The elegant but erratic centre half burst onto the scene two years ago in a friendly against Coyle’s Premier League-bound Burnley.
And this afternoon Williams was in imperious form again when the Scot brought his Bolton side to Valley Parade.
Tidy and confident on the ball, strong and commanding in the tackle, it was chalk and cheese from the sketchy character who faced Guiseley earlier in the week.
Against a full-strength opposition – albeit a leggy one, having only touched down from their American tour 24 hours earlier – Williams looked a class act alongside the brute strength of skipper Guy Branston.
Peter Jackson has already warned Williams that this season is make or break. The sun-baked fans yesterday got a reminder of just how good he can be on his game.
“That’s the best game I’ve seen him have since I’ve been at the club,” said Jackson.
“The last time the centre backs played together up at Guiseley, they were a little bit shaky. But they formed a good partnership yesterday.
“Obviously you’ve got the power of Guy at the back and hopefully that will rub off on Willo now.
“You look at James Hanson as well. If he can do that against (David) Wheater at the back, then he can destroy any centre half in League Two.
“Like Willo, that was one of his best games and I’ve told him that’s his standard from now on.”
Jackson had plenty to smile about after an encounter that was very easy on the eye and a lot closer than the final margin of defeat suggested.
Two late goals from A-listers Kevin Davies and Ivan Klasnic glossed Bolton’s victory unfairly for the hosts, who had played their full part in proceedings.
City created just as many opportunities, particularly from set-pieces where Chris Mitchell’s quality delivery really stood out. And how refreshing to see crosses come from City’s left wing – and from a left foot – in the shape of trialist Jack Compton.
Jackson reckons Compton’s fitness can go up a couple of notches but the former Falkirk wideman, playing his second game in three days, showed enough to be worth sticking with.
Williams, though, was the star of the show in the first half and seemed to be involved in just about everything.
He planted one header on top of the Bolton net and saw another blocked on the line by Mark Davies. Then he produced a goal-saving tackle in front of his own unguarded net to deny Darren Pratley, who had danced round Mark Howard.
The on-trial keeper got the nod for his third appearance and was at fault for Bolton’s 14th-minute opener after rushing from his goal to bring down Pratley. Howard guessed the right way with Martin Petrov’s penalty but the Bulgarian’s placement was too precise.
Bolton doubled their advantage 20 minutes after the break. Greter Steinsson swept a long ball over Branston and Robbie Blake showed his customary poise to hold it up until Pratley was in position to sweep home.
Blake’s standing ovation from the home fans soon after was well deserved.
Simon Ramsden, equally, earned the applause for a 67-minute appearance – his first at Valley Parade since February. Two games over the weekend will have done his confidence a power of good.
Newly-arrived substitute Nialle Rodney had the crowd on their feet again within four minutes. Picking up possession 35 yards out, he brushed past Mark Connolly on a jinking run before bending a delicious shot round Adam Bogdan’s fingertips.
If Hanson and Williams have set their standard for performances, Rodney had just put the bar ridiculously high for City’s goals this season.
Hanson was close to jabbing an equaliser before Howard’s legs thwarted Petrov. But the keeper was caught in no man’s land as Kevin Davies, on for Blake, lobbed Bolton’s third.
Howard made amends with a good save from Tope Obadeyi, before Petrov picked out Klasnic for a top-notch finish from a tight angle.
It was harsh and unfair but the scoreline was pretty immaterial. City had delivered where it mattered.
City: Howard, Ramsden (Burns 67), Williams, Branston, O’Brien, Rowe, Mitchell, Flynn, Compton (Wells 80), Stewart (Rodney 67), Hanson (Hannah 82). Subs: Bullock, Brown, Lacey, Dean, McLaughlin.
Bolton: Bogdan, Steinsson, Connolly, Wheater, Alonso, M Davies (Gardner 58), Pratley, Muamba (Obadeyi 58), Petrov, Blake (K Davies 73), Klasnic. Subs: Robinson, Cahill, Knight, Lainton.