OUT-SMARTED and out-fought by Oxford United – Bolton Wanderers’ Championship dreams were shattered after a desperate display at Wembley.

Two goals from Josh Murphy made sure that Des Buckingham’s side, beaten so convincingly at the Toughsheet Stadium only a couple of months ago, take the final promotion place.

Ian Evatt’s team had shouted about their preparation and their ability to handle the pressure on their shoulders even after missing out on a top-two spot.

But faced with the jeopardy of the play-offs and knowing they had to produce on the big day, they simply failed to turn up, crushing the hopes of 32,000 fans who came to watch them in the capital.

Considering the two sides had been separated by 10 points in the regular season, there was hardly a question about the victor once Oxford had got themselves into the lead. In fact, within the first couple of minutes the scene was set. Sam Long rattled into a touchline challenge on Paris Maghoma, leaving the Bolton man in a heap. From there his impact was negligible at best.

The Brentford loanee left the field three minutes into the second half after finally succumbing to the injury, his face half-buried in the collar of his shirt.

At least Maghoma had injury as a semi-excuse for his sub-standard performance. Others simply did not show up at all.

Oxford continued to rattle. Cameron Brannagan walked a fine line in his early exchanges with George Thomason, Josh Sheehan and Josh Dacres-Cogley but all served to disrupt Bolton’s flow entirely.

There were early signs that Bolton were out of sorts on the ball, too. Santos got caught after driving into midfield, then slipped to force his goalkeeper Nathan Baxter into an emergency clearance ahead of the chasing Mark Harris.

Wanderers only flutter of reasonable football in the first half happened with the score still goalless. Sheehan drove a shot wide, Ogbeta had one blocked.

Just as the cobwebs looked to be clearing, Oxford took control. Doing more with two or three touches than Bolton were doing with 10, the U’s fired one warning shot through Ruben Rodrigues. The second did not miss.

Murphy cut in from the left with Dacres-Cogley unable to get close driving a shot that Baxter looked to have covered until a touch off Santos’s head took it an agonising yard out of his reach.

Even that shock was not enough to wake Bolton from their slumber. Santos did angle one good ball in towards Dion Charles, hitherto a spectator, but some fine covering defending from Joe Bennett ensured no further damage.

More often, Santos having the ball meant pointlessly long spells of languid possession. Oxford refused to engage, why would they? So, with midfield locked down and the chance to play through it effectively neutralised, the men in white looked utterly bereft of ideas on how to change things for the better.

Set pieces were laughably poor, and so there was no simple route to get back on level terms.

Worse was to come before half-time. Once again Oxford’s genius was in simplicity.

Maghoma failed to control the ball 35 yards out, then being out-jumped for a header, and in a flash Rodrigues played a clever ball in for Murphy, who had got the wrong side of Jones. There was still work to do as the former Cardiff man went wide of Baxter’s dive and then slotted a second goal in from a tight angle.

Back in 1995 Bolton had been 2-0 down at half time, at least energised by Keith Branagan’s famous penalty save. That spared Bruce Rioch’s side an especially harsh reception as they went back down the tunnel. There was no such grace for this team, however, with the howls of derision growing louder with each dithering move across the back line until five minutes of added time was over.

Would half time give Ian Evatt a chance to mend what was broken? It was hard to remember a more important 15 minutes in his four years in charge.

Maghoma’s injury meant his plans were changed three minutes into the second half but the roar from the Wanderers fans as Kyle Dempsey entered the pitch did at least hint that they were not ready to give up just yet.

For a few moments Dempsey’s energy threatened to loosen Oxford’s grip on the game, and his performance against Plymouth in the Papa Johns Trophy was still fresh enough in the memory.

Buckingham’s side were canny enough to ride out the spell of pressure, though, and with some more space to utilise Murphy’s pace he nearly claimed a hat-trick, driving just wide from the angle.

Evatt went for a footballing Hail Mary – Cameron Jerome, Jack Irdeale and Victor Adeboyejo on for Charles, Sheehan and Ogbeta. It looked like a desperate move because it was a desperate move.

With Jones now right wing-back and Dacres-Cogley on the left, Jack Iredale dropped in at centre-half and Aaron Collins played as a number 10.

The influential Brannagan left the field injured but even that didn’t spark Bolton into life. Baxter denied Murphy after another smart counter and then got lucky when miscommunication with Dacres-Cogley saw him swing a leg at Dale and concede a free kick on the very edge of his penalty box.

Murphy will be upset not to have a match-ball to go with his winner’s medal. Another headed chance at the far post went begging before the end, Bolton’s spirit at this point completely sapped.

Nine minutes of injury time would ordinarily bring another guttural roar from the Wanderers supporters but they knew the game was up, and the number of red seats steadily increased as the disappointment crystalised.

The final whistle blew, all but a few Bolton players slumped to their haunches.

Evatt dutifully went round to shake the hand of the Oxford players and his opposite number but his face told a different story. He is now a manager with plenty to think about this summer as he considers how to turn this frustrating team into one with the consistency to be champions.