AS a player, Ian Evatt sampled the highs and lows that Wembley can offer, but as a manager he is stepping into the great unknown on Sunday afternoon.

Two-times a play-off winner with Blackpool, he also twice sampled defeat on the grand stage. The Papa Johns Trophy final will be the very first time that he has not been able to directly influence matters on the pitch.

To his left as he walks out of the tunnel will be a wall of white – some 34,000 Wanderers fans who have been with him on every step of an exciting journey – to his right, a sea of green, the 38,000 Plymouth Argyle fans who have been on a fairytale season thus far.

Regardless of the result, both teams have eight games left to claim a prize in League One, and it is not beyond the realm of possibility that they could meet again, on the same pitch, in May’s play-off final.

For Bolton the chance of silverware and a day out at a stadium they have graced 13 times before is somewhat symbolic of the positive direction the club has taken since Evatt’s arrival in July 2020.

Promotion from League Two, consolidation in League One, and now the opportunity for success on two fronts with the aim of Championship football as the incentive at the end of it all. A 75,000-strong crowd is a far cry from the handful of people who watched his first official game in lockdown, played by a team of trialists on a bumpy pitch at Atherton Colls.

“It is hard to predict what it will actually be like and feel like walking out as a manager at Wembley until I actually do it,” he told The Bolton News.

“I knew what it was like as a player but to lead a team out as a manager I’m guessing will be a completely different feeling. To see 34-35,000 Bolton fans in the east end of Wembley is going to be fantastic.

“It is a terrific representation of the size of the clubs we have in League One now and I am sure the EFL will be delighted that they have two teams with such a fanbase and ticket sales, and I think for the sponsors it is a brilliant game for them because sometimes this competition can be undervalued.

“And as a game itself I think there are two very good teams, neither knowing how to take a backward step, who will be going all out to win.”

It is highly likely that the Papa Johns Trophy final will be the biggest collection of Bolton Wanderers supporters assembled in one place since the late seventies.

Reports from the 1995 League Cup final against Liverpool claimed between 33,000 and 34,000 tickets had been sold in the Bolton end, although those present also say there was also a strong Scouse contingent.

You may have to go back to Burnden Park’s last 50,000 crowd for a League Cup semi-final against Everton in 1977, or the day Ian Greaves’s team clinched promotion to the First Division on the last day against Fulham in 1978 for a larger gathering.

Evatt’s children were too young to remember him stepping out at Wembley as a player but they too will be tucked away in the crowd, beaming with pride.

“My son, in particular, who is a big football fan, will be absolutely delighted to see me walk out there,” said the Bolton boss. “To lead a team out, it will be something we remember for the rest of our lives.”

Evatt has had plenty of time to prepare for the final, the previous league game on March 17 at Sheffield Wednesday having finished with a positive performance. Since then there has been a behind-closed-doors match against Rotherham United, won 3-1, and a scattering of internationals for the likes of James Trafford, Luke Mbete, Dion Charles, Eoin Toal and Conor Bradley.

The finishing touches to the tactical plan will be done on the training ground of Premier League Brentford, who have made their facilities available as a favour. That will be the last time Evatt has complete control – and on Sunday afternoon, to a greater extent, he will be praying along with the rest of us.

“It may be slightly easier for me to take in the atmosphere on Sunday because, unfortunately for me, once the players turn up my work is done. It is then down to them to deliver what we have prepared to do,” he said.

“We can help them in moments – half time, just before the game, and give them snippets of information from the touchline but that will be challenging with mid-70,000 people there.

“It is down to the players to do what we have coached them to do, but maybe I get a chance in the warm-up to step out and have a look around, hopefully seeing that sea of white to my left.

“It is probably harder for the fans and the families because they can have no impact whatsoever and it is basically whether the team delivers or not. For me, it is a small percentage, because I can have some sort of impact.

“As a player you don’t really think about the greater picture. You are very much switched on and focussed on a game and you could literally be anywhere – Morecambe away or Wembley Stadium – you are just looking at what is going on in front of you.

“I have real confidence the players can deliver what we have coached them to do. I feel like they have really re-energised this last couple of weeks and are in good form, so hopefully we take that into Sunday.”