WANDERERS took a big step towards Wembley as they capitalised on a fragile Barnsley and seized the lead in the play-off semi-final.

Dion Charles scored twice, once from the spot, before Randell Williams grabbed a vital third direct from a corner, as Ian Evatt’s side held their nerve at Oakwell.

Twelve months ago they had struggled to create or score on a night of nerves at this stage – but throughout a feisty contest they always looked to have another goal left in them.

Even when Sam Cosgrove brought the Reds back to within a goal – giving them hope they scarcely deserved – there was still some quality left in the tank.

They bring Barnsley back to the Toughsheet on Tuesday night with a two-goal advantage and a partisan home crowd.

Wanderers only made one change to the side that started at Peterborough last weekend, Paris Maghoma came back into the team after illness and Kyle Dempsey dropped to the bench.

Joel Coleman was also named among the substitutes, which meant that Dan Nlundulu was not named in the matchday squad.

Before the game there had been much discussion about the importance of scoring the first goal, of inflicting the first blow on a home side that has been struggling for confidence of late.

In that sense, Bolton succeeded. Charles’s 23rd minute strike was the one genuine moment of quality in a half that rarely paused for breath and suffered as a spectacle because of it.

The Northern Ireland international had returned to scoring form at London Road from the penalty spot but in finishing off a fine move down the right involving Josh Dacres-Cogley, Paris Maghoma and Aaron Collins, he provided a reminder of the predatory instincts we really missed in his absence earlier this year.

Maghoma’s cross was a thing of beauty. Had he seen more of the ball in the first 45 minutes then Barnsley’s resolve would have been tested further.

Instead, the early football was testy, scrappy and uneven. Adam Phillips was in one of those moods where he was going to shoot on sight, and his curling 13th minute effort which cleared the bar by a couple of yards was the best of a bad bunch.

Eoin Toal and Ricardo Santos had to keep concentration against a steady stream of crosses from the right, Corey O’Keefe getting in behind Randell Williams on a couple of occasions.

While Barnsley offered little in terms of ingenuity, they certainly did not lack in the effort stakes. And even after going behind, the Yorkshiremen didn’t look like they were going to go quietly.

Wanderers had a couple of other half-chances. Williams nearly dived full-length to get his head to Collins’s left-wing cross, Charles nipped ahead of keeper Liam Roberts on the edge of his own box but ran out of space, and a few other chances for Dacres-Cogley and George Thomason were charged down.

It wasn’t always easy to tell what referee Will Finnie was going to give as a foul, or ignore completely. As the half wore on there were midfield bookings for Phillips, Thomason and Maghoma that left you wondering if we were going to keep a full quota of players on the pitch.

Bolton have not always looked comfortable when the more direct approach was needed. Exploiting the space in behind Barnsley’s wing-backs and either side of the centre-halves was very much a case of trial and error, with no shortage of fruitless running.

At half time there was some concern over skipper Santos, who didn’t appear to be moving well as his team-mates jogged to the tunnel in the corner alongside the travelling supporters.

He returned for the second half – still looking in some discomfort, in truth – but was sufficiently switched on to snuff out an early run from John McAtee on the edge of the box.

Barnsley could only wish their defending around the box had been as sharp. Eight minutes into the second half, Charles was celebrating his 20th of the season after scoring from the penalty spot and Bolton’s supporters were singing about Wembley.

Jordan Williams – making his 200th appearance for the Reds – sold a header short to his keeper, and Sheehan nipped in before being clattered to the ground.

Despite some typically provocative shenanigans from Earl trying to delay and off-put Bolton’s penalty taker, and a decent effort from Roberts, all being said, the lead was doubled.

Only a brilliant block from Nicky Cadden prevented a third goal a few minutes later when Williams broke clear and pulled a ball back for Maghoma. From the corner, Santos put the ball in the net, but ref Finnie spotted a foul and cut short the celebrations, at least from the Bolton players. The fans… Well, they were determined to sing the night away, regardless.

From there, Bolton’s task was to give Barnsley no encouragement. Home fans had made it perfectly clear they didn’t like what they were watching and there was trouble flaring up in the stand behind Nathan Baxter’s goal moments before sub Sam Cosgrove gave them a lifeline.

A fairly speculative ball tempted Toal to drift across to the right edge of the box to try and win the ball but he nor Gethin Jones managed it, and another replacement, Conor Grant, picked out Cosgrove. Oakwell suddenly found its voice again.

Wanderers were suddenly the ones who could not get out of their own half. Phillips thundered another shot, blocked by Thomason, and was then denied by brilliantly by Baxter after heading down from a corner.

The fourth official showed six minutes of added time, sending another flicker of hope around the home supporters, in between the Tannoy warnings not to invade the pitch.

Phillips continued his one-man assault on the Bolton goal into stoppage time, driving another low angled shot at goal to bring another important stop out of Baxter.

Bolton’s subs then combined – Cameron Jerome sending Dempsey racing in on goal – but this time it was Roberts who produced the heroics, blocking the shot.

Wanderers didn’t gamble too many men forward for the corner, and in the event they didn’t need to. Williams conjured images of the late, great Paul Comstive, as his corner made its way into the net without help.

There was still time for some drama on the edge of the box, Toal shoving his Papa Johns final nemesis Cosgrove and picking up a yellow with the home crowd screaming for red.

“Dance around if you’re going up!” chanted the Bolton fans as the players left the pitch at the final whistle. Well, there’s work to be done before that happens… But this was an important first step.