It was meant to be Sheffield United’s day to celebrate their amazing achievements in 2017 but Gary Madine gatecrashed the party.
Jeered before kick-off like the pantomime villain, it was Madine – the former Sheffield Wednesday striker – who netted the winner in a display tagged a “smash and grab” win by Blades boss Chris Wilder.
United had gone into the game hoping the 3-0 Boxing Day win over Sunderland had cured their recent poor run of results – no win in six games.
Victory on Saturday would have even seen United smash the club record for the highest amount of points in a calendar year.
Instead, Wilder cut a frustrated figure – after a run of five games at Bramall Lane which has brought just four points – when he entered the post-match press conference, over an hour after the final whistle.
“There was no inquest,” he insisted to The Yorkshire Post. “Just a sensible talk that we can’t keep being a mug side, it was a smash and grab.
I just don’t want us to be that side which is talked about in good ways, but has picked up only four points in five home games.Chris Wilder
“I thought they started the first 15 minutes better than us, turned it into the game they wanted.
“It was very frustrating. We created chances, but we were poor in finishing it off and we made poor decisions in the final third.”
The decisive goal came on 21 minutes, as the visitors overloaded the right-hand flank.
Former Rotherham United striker Adam Le Fondre pulled out wide, spotted the overlapping Antonee Robinson, and he whipped in a low cross for Madine to side-foot home.
After being jeered when his name was read out pre-match, and every time he touched the ball, Madine took great delight in celebrating in front of the stunned Kop.
Madine’s performance earned praise from both managers.
“He was outstanding,” Bolton manager Phil Parkinson said. “He led the line terrifically well and delivered a winning performance.”
And Wilder added: “Credit to them, they whacked it up to the best player in the game today, Gary Madine.
“Even though he has come in for some criticism, with his connections to Sheffield Wednesday, I have got to say he was outstanding. That was the only time they got up the pitch.
“The amount of times we got into some really good positions, but made poor decision, and didn’t show the quality that we need to show if we are to sustain our position or kick-on in the top six of the Championship.”
United had their chances for an equaliser before half-time, but found a goalkeeper in Ben Alnwick, who was on top form.
First he got down to parry away a low effort from substitute George Baldock – on as part of a defensive reshuffle which saw Cameron Carter-Vickers replaced after half an hour.
Then Leon Clarke – United’s top scorer, fresh from signing a new long-term contract – raced clear of the Bolton defence with just Alnwick to beat.
But the Bolton goalkeeper stood tall to divert Clarke’s shot away to safety, the 32-year-old unable to add to his 14 goals in United’s colours.
At the other end, Madine - who had a loud shout for a penalty rejected after a Carter-Vickers tackle – showed trickery, combined with strength, to beat his marker, before testing goalkeeper Simon Moore with a low shot.
United improved after the break, but the Bolton goal lived a charmed life. First, Baldock twisted and turned before firing off a shot which Alnwick tipped wide of his left-hand post.
Then, Clarke somehow failed to find the target from three yards out, the ball hitting his shin and ballooning over the crossbar.
Since going top of the Championship, with a 3-1 win at Burton Albion in November, United have now lost at home to Fulham, Bristol City and Bolton, drawing with Birmingham City, and winning just the once, against Sunderland.
But the Blades still finish 2017 in the Championship’s top six, ahead of today’s trip to Derby County, although Wilder insists they must start turning good displays into victories.
“It does frustrate me today,” he said. “I want us to play like that, I wouldn’t want to play any other way, and I don’t think our supporters would accept it.
“I just don’t want us to be that side which is talked about in good ways, but has picked up only four points in five home games.
“I don’t remember anybody coming to Bramall Lane and dominating us for periods.
“We have to be clinical in what we do in both boxes, and we weren’t today.
“I look at those five games – the Fulham game was an exception – but the other games, we have been in the ascendancy.
“But we can’t dominate from box to box, without putting teams away. Yet again today, we have not put the opposition away.”
Bolton remain in the bottom three, but Parkinson – the former Bradford City manager – left Bramall Lane with renewed optimism. “The atmosphere here is great,” he said. “Mentality is key when you play here, and we implemented it very well.”
Sheffield United: Moore, O’Connell, Carter-Vickers (Baldock 31), Stearman (Carruthers 79), Stevens, Basham, Fleck, Lundstram, Duffy, Sharp (Donaldson 61), Clarke. Unused substitutes: Blackman, Lafferty, Lavery, Wright.
Bolton Wanderers: Alnwick, Beevers, Robinson, Morais (Little 65), Wheater, Burke, Cullen (Vela 83), Pratley, Henry, Le Fondre (Armstrong 76), Madine. Unused substitutes: Turner, Buckley, Derik, Wilbraham.