PLAYERS in white sunk to their knees at the final whistle, some heads in hands as if beaten in a cup final.

Nobody had given Bolton Wanderers a chance against the Championship leaders, let alone at 2-0 down. And yet Phil Parkinson’s side was just 30 seconds away from claiming a point which would have been a defiant statement against the madness which has gone on around them in the previous week.

When Mario Vrancic and Marco Stiepermann scored either side of half time for the Canaries, it seemed nothing but a Christmas miracle was going to get Wanderers back into the game. The home side had quality and ruthlessness where it mattered, whereas Parkinson’s side did not.

Just as we geared up to tell a familiar tale, however, things took an unexpected twist. Sammy Ameobi turned in Andy Taylor’s cross and Mark Beevers plundered an 88th minute equaliser.

Frozen in time, that moment had the power to change Bolton’s season for the better. But the Joy quickly turned to tears as Ameobi picked up a cheap second yellow card deep into stoppage time, and the resulting free kick dropped for Teemu Pukki to lash past Ben Alnwick to claim three points in the most brutal manner conceivable.

To understand why the reaction of Bolton’s players was so severe, you have to consider the week leading up to the game.

Players had walked on to the pitch for the second game unpaid. A promise by club owner and chairman Ken Anderson to rectify the situation on Thursday had been broken without explanation.

The PFA have now stepped in to provide part-payment of wages while Anderson – who was not present at Carrow Road – has declined to comment on questions about the immediate financial stability of the club he is trying to sell.

Until players showed up as a group before kick-off – remarkably relaxed and jovial, given the circumstances - rumours of strike action could not be completely put to bed.

Questions marks over the players’ mentality were swiftly discarded, however, as Wanderers tackled a home side brimming with confidence head-on.

If last weekend’s home draw against Wigan Athletic had not left you completely satisfied that Wanderers were once again up for a relegation scrap, this breathless 90 minutes was as definitive an answer as it is possible to give.

Jason Lowe forced Tim Krul into a smart stop with a well-executed volley, Will Buckley sliced through the Norwich back line only to prod his shot wide of the post.

Daniel Farke’s technically-sound and aesthetically pleasing brand of football has taken time to settle at Carrow Road, yet this season the penny has dropped. More than 25,000 fans packed into pockets of yellow and green, creating a fine atmosphere which ranks among the very best in the division.

Spurred by the impressive Joe Williams in midfield, Wanderers had set a good tempo but an open game developed and chances also started to materialise at the other end. Alexander Tettey headed wide, Stiepermann was denied by Alnwick and the excellent Todd Cantwell placed a shot narrowly wide of the post after an extravagant back-heel from Max Aarons.

The opening goal arrived via impeccable Serbian midfielder Mario Vrancic, played in by Aarons on the edge of the area he angled a shot into the bottom corner which left Alnwick unsighted.

Bolton struggled to get the same foothold in the second half and when Norwich’s lead was doubled, you feared how many more goals may follow.

Stiepermann had looked a danger all afternoon, picking up on loose balls around the penalty box, and he seized on just such an opportunity to put clear daylight between the two sides.

Almost out of nowhere, an unmarked Ameobi crashed home Andy Taylor’s cross to change the complexion of the game completely.

Bolton still defended with impressive resolve – Jack Hobbs, Mark Beevers and Christian Doidge making important contributions – and they got their reward two minutes from time.

After an almighty scramble in the penalty box and with Norwich keeper Krul sprawled on the floor, Beevers was able to stab the ball into the net to spark incredible celebration both on the pitch and among the few hundred away fans in the stands.

If it had finished there, the point would have been as hard-earned as any in Phil Parkinson’s time as manager.

Ameobi had picked up a booking early on for a late challenge on Cantwell. Others of similar ilk went unpunished.

So when the winger cynically pulled back Pukki in the centre circle to prevent any possible Norwich break on 93 minutes, the red card felt a little inevitable.

The free kick was lumped into the box and when Taylor’s half-challenge dropped nicely for Pukki, the Finn volleyed his 12th of the season.

You couldn’t help but feel sorry for Wanderers, who had given as good as they got all afternoon. But in the cold light of day that slight lapse in concentration is one of the reasons they are fighting down the bottom end of the Championship table and Norwich are dreaming of the Premier League.

So what now for a group of players who earned the respect of every single Bolton fan for their efforts on Saturday afternoon?

If the payment issue is not resolved satisfactorily by Friday, the doomsday scenario is that they could walk away from the club for nothing. And how shameful that such a thing is even being considered.

An explanation is expected by players, coaching staff and supporters. And an apology would also not go amiss.

But most importantly we need an honest answer to the question posed by The Bolton News last week: Is the immediate future of Bolton Wanderers in jeopardy? Only then will the club be able to move forward.