WANDERERS’ march to the Papa Johns Trophy final officially began with a 4-1 win against Crewe Alexandra on a balmy August evening at the UniBol – but the seeds were in fact sewn several months earlier.

The previous January, Ian Evatt’s side had been dumped out of the competition by League Two Hartlepool United, an undignified and self-inflicted exit in sub-zero temperatures at Victoria Park which had left the Bolton boss incandescent with rage.

Joel Dixon’s late gaff had gifted Pools passage to the quarter-final. Not only that, but the inglorious result had also denied the Whites their best possible chance of silverware in their return to League One.

With that in mind, there was something to be read into the way Evatt and Wanderers tackled the 2022/23 trophy route with a squad that now had the depth the previous campaign had lacked.

Indeed, eight changes were made to the team that tackled Crewe from one narrowly beaten by – coincidentally – Plymouth a few days beforehand at Home Park. One was the welcome return of Josh Sheehan for the first time since a serious knee injury had ended his involvement the previous season in November.

The scoreline looked comfortable, and the game should have been won at a canter, but Bolton’s early-season propensity to waste goalscoring chances was at its most frustrating and after Amadou Bakayoko opened the scoring five minutes in, they could have made it much easier on themselves.

Courtney Baker-Richardson equalised with a goal he claimed, but owed largely to a mix-up between keeper Dixon and debutant Eoin Toal, for whom thankfully the campaign would soon get better.

Visiting keeper Dave Richards looked unbeatable and with the match so finely poised there was always the chance that Crewe could turn highwaymen, rather than railwaymen, and steal the points.

Thankfully, an incisive pass from Elias Kachunga found Dion Charles racing through 12 minutes before the end, the Northern Ireland international doubling his personal tally soon after from close range. A fourth was supplied by Kieran Sadlier – the cup goal specialist – and points were on the board.

Wanderers had another comeback at Tranmere in their next group game, with popular winger Lloyd Isgrove playing his first minutes since a double hamstring tear which had kept him out for several months. It didn’t prove the best night for the former Southampton man, who missed the crucial penalty in a shootout, but Bolton grabbed a point after a lacklustre display thanks to ex-Wolves trainee Conor Carty’s late effort.

Wanderers secured safe passage through to the knockout stages with a routine home win against Leeds United’s kids with Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, Bakayoko and Sadlier on target, and Isgrove making his first start in nearly a year.

The talking point after the game, however, was Declan John’s angry reaction after being substituted midway through the second half for Owen Beck.

Evatt made nine changes from his league line-up for a reunion with his former club Barrow in the first knockout round and lost Kyle Dempsey to injury after only 20 minutes. His replacement, Dapo Afolayan opened the scoring and then created a goal for Bodvarsson that should have killed the game off.

The Cumbrians would not lie down, however, and were helped in their comeback effort by another keeper error from ex-Barrow man Dixon, punished by Josh Kay. Niall Canavan nipped in to head an equaliser but before a full-blown crisis could be called, Elias Kachunga popped up with a winner – his first Bolton goal in 20 games.

Manchester United’s Under-21s were next up, and though the scoreline suggested a whitewash, it was the worrying number of chances that went begging that were the topic of discussion after the game.

The young Reds, including future loanee Shola Shoretire, played some neat stuff. But Bolton’s added physicality and nous won through in the end, Afolayan, Bakayoko, Aaron Morley and Conor Bradley scoring all the goals inside the last 22 minutes of the game.

Things started to get serious when Bolton were drawn against League One rivals Portsmouth, a team that were also targeting the competition as their best shot of silverware.

Bodvarsson scored the only goal of a scrappy game played on a deteriorating UniBol surface, and James Trafford came up with a vital save at the end to ensure there would be no penalty shootout.

That set up a semi-final with Accrington Stanley – a Lancashire rival looking for their first-ever appearance at Wembley, and licking their lips at the prospect of stepping over Bolton to achieve it.

An early red card for Sean McConville effectively ended Stanley’s night as an attacking force but their defensive stubbornness, coupled with some wayward finishing, meant the tie looked destined for penalties until Kachunga performed another rescue act with eight minutes to go.

Castigated for having picked up a needless red card against Forest Green a few weeks earlier – one which was wrongly issued to team-mate Dion Charles at the time – the former Huddersfield Town man got his redemption with that late strike, the lead later doubled by a sweet strike from Morley.

Wanderers had reached Wembley for the 14th time in their history, and less than four years after they were in administration, facing financial ruin.

"To be honest, this is probably the most nervous I've been in my career,” Evatt said after the game. "When you're a player, you're out there so you can affect things. When you're a manager it's completely different.

"Today, I just wanted it so badly for so many people. For Sharon (Brittan) and the board, who have saved this football club. What they've done is absolutely incredible.

"For the players, I thought they deserved a big day out at Wembley, and most importantly the fans. They've been through so much.

"We almost lost this club and now to have a Wembley cup final is something to be incredibly proud of. I'm delighted we've got there.

"There's still lots of work to be done in the league before then but we can park that now and look forward to it.

"I'm so proud of so many people. We really deserve this as a football club.”