IAN Evatt has often said that Wanderers’ season will be defined by how they handle the disappointments, and his theory will now be put to the test.

That Bolton did not finish in the top two – their target from the moment they walked off the field as beaten play-off semi-finalists at Barnsley 12 months ago – is a genuine blow.

Not to deride their achievement, but consistency, rather than quality, helped Portsmouth and Derby County secure the automatic promotion spots. Wanderers’ highs were higher but their lows also lower and more frequent.

Indeed, the fact that Bolton have not honoured their pre-season target is down to moments, rather than results. Genuine poor performances have been few and far between – Wigan and Carlisle at home, Leyton Orient away – but it is possible to pinpoint moments where games have been taken away from their control, which makes the shortfall all the more annoying.

Dion Charles’s miss against Pompey, Jon Dadi Bodvarsson’s scoop over the bar in the reverse fixture, Nat Ogbeta’s glaring close-range miss against Shrewsbury, the numerous chances that went begging at Derby, Exeter and Reading. There is genuine sense that this has all been self-inflicted, and not a person in the Bolton dressing room feels otherwise.

So as not to blame it all on the attacking unit, Wanderers have also lost some of the defensive resolve which got them to the play-offs last season too. Sure, the injury to Nathan Baxter in February and Joel Coleman’s comparative lack of football to that stage had not helped, nor has the fact Ricardo Santos has had a couple of troubling injuries, George Johnson has not been available after wrecking his knee in pre-season, or that Gethin Jones got his first call-up for Australia in January whisking him away for a month.

There was an undeniable trade-off last summer when Evatt looked at the way his team had struggled to create chances in the play-off semi-final against Barnsley and knew he had to bring more of an attacking edge.

In that sense, there has been success. Only Peterborough scored more league goals in the division and the only Bolton team to manage more since the war was Colin Todd’s brilliant class of 1996/97.

So why the long faces, you might ask? Part of the frustration stems from the general consensus that this was not a vintage title race. There were no mega-budgets, a la Ipswich, Sunderland, Sheffield Wednesday or Wigan, and though Evatt has since downplayed his comments, even he admitted at the start of the season that it looked like more of a level playing field than ever before.

Bolton did invest more cash in the likes of Dan Nlundulu, Carlos Mendes Gomes and Aaron Collins and some of the loan and free agents added, like Nathan Baxter, Paris Maghoma and Josh Dacres-Cogley have proven very good bits of business.

Wanderers have more playing assets under contract than they have for quite some time but the ever-present expectation to see this grand old club operating at the higher levels of the English game is not going to go away. It has been there since day one for Evatt, who has thrived on proving the doubters and critics wrong in the past.

That Bolton go back to Barnsley again is a strange quirk of footballing fate but whereas the Oakwell men were marginal favourites last season, a stubborn bull of a side under Michael Duff, this season’s vintage has been in horrific form for the last couple of months.

Ever since Randell Williams chased up Josh Sheehan’s missed penalty to score a 98th minute equaliser back at the start of March, things have won just twice in 11 games – and that against strugglers Carlisle and Burton.

Confidence in South Yorkshire isn’t especially high, and the club’s decision to sack manager Neil Collins on the penultimate week of the season was a bold one. At time of writing a replacement has not been named, with Martin Devaney set to continue as caretaker manager for the time being.

Wanderers, by comparison, lost once in their final 12 games. For balance, the 2-2 scoreline at Oakwell was one of six draws that ultimately lost them ground on the top two.

Dion Charles, Nathan Baxter, Ricardo Santos, Dan Nlundulu and Victor Adeboyejo are fit again, with Evatt finally able to select something like his strongest team.

The signs are promising but only if the right version of Bolton Wanderers turn up over two legs. Can they shrug off the disappointment of missing out on second spot and carry on regardless? The next 180 minutes will reveal all.