WHAT now? The question asked by 32,000 Wanderers fans badly let down by their club at Wembley.

Missing out in the play-offs for a second consecutive season is one thing but to do it in such timid fashion is as unfathomable as it is unforgivable.

This team, built by Ian Evatt on foundations of swagger and bravado, has its pants pulled down on the biggest stage of them all. Out-thought and out-fought, that Oxford United won by only two clear goals is the only possible consolation you can take from a wretched day.

Neither the manager nor his players could adequately explain what went wrong, their own minds still spinning with under-performance. In the days to come we can pick apart how Des Buckingham’s U’s negated every possible threat and closed down space with maximum efficiency, or how Evatt and his players floundered in their attempt to find a riposte. The first issue that must be solved before we contemplate a fourth season in League One goes down to the very roots.

Has Evatt reached his ceiling after four seasons of league progression? Just like one of his predecessors Phil Neal, he has knocked on the door of Championship football for two straight seasons but been unable to find the key.

Anger must not be allowed to cloud judgement on this issue. As embarrassing as this performance most certainly was, Evatt has produced plenty to be proud about in his four years as Wanderers boss. By finishing third he has improved league position in each season, there were of course happier Wembley times in the Papa Johns Trophy, and this is a squad which did go mighty close to achieving its aim of a top two place.

That they failed in that target, having held such a strong position at the turn of the year, is concerning, even when you factor in the crippling injury situation through the spine of the team.

Form in 2024 has been horribly inconsistent, and just as Bolton can point to several glorious goal-filled afternoons where Evatt-ball glittered and everything in the garden was rosy, this is a team which cannot be trusted on the big occasion.

The manager promised a period of introspection. A young and highly-rated manager will ask himself whether it is right for his career to perform the type of surgery needed to take the next step. It seems extreme to think that a decision would be taken out of his hands by the club’s board – but for Evatt’s own sake, he must consider his options and what another season in a stronger League One will look like.

Should Evatt go again, then there must be a root and branch review of the squad he has built, and why such a fragile mentality has been shown in so many games of this ilk.

The manager has been remarkably loyal to some players, and he will feel let down by what he saw on Saturday afternoon.

Everyone is looking for a singular cause to blame, and in football the manager is all-too-often the agreed target. In this case there are peripheral arguments which also come into play.

Did Bolton celebrate too soon? Pitch invasions and beers in hand felt great after victory against Barnsley but should the inquest have happened immediately as to why that game nearly slipped out of their hands?

Captain Ricardo Santos has simply not looked in top shape since returning from a calf injury in February. Talk of a serious issue has been played down repeatedly but the big centre half has only when riled by Portsmouth’s Kusni Yengi has he shown anything like his best.

Dion Charles has also managed his knee injury with injections, arguably with greater success than Santos, but lasted just an hour at Wembley and touched the ball 13 times.

Paris Maghoma was clattered by Sam Long about a minute in, a demonstrative challenge which was just the right side of legal but left the Brentford man in considerable pain. He left the stadium on crutches and wearing a protective boot having rolled his ankle – but was incredibly allowed to play on for the whole first half.

Maghoma has been a match-winner, that much is true, but to 32,000 eyes he was an injured passenger and not taking him out of the firing line will go down as an error forevermore.

Josh Sheehan’s solitary contribution to the first half was a low drive that whistled just wide, otherwise a team that has gladly boasted its record-breaking goal return this season looked toothless and bereft of inspiration.

Oxford’s genius was closing space and options. Bolton’s only answer was to try and play over, but neither Josh Dacres-Cogley nor Nat Ogbeta – in for the injured Randell Williams – could get change from their full-backs Long and Joe Bennett.

At times Bolton’s lack of ingenuity was farcical. Santos waited with his foot on the ball for a press to be triggered but might as well have waited for the next tube to Uxbridge. The U’s knew where they had to fight this battle, and it wasn’t on the edge of the penalty box.

Behind the goal 32,000 fans screamed for their team to get going. But Oxford’s yellows were lapping it up, especially after Josh Murphy cut in to beat Dacres-Cogley and his shot bounced off Santos to deceive Nathan Baxter for the opening goal.

Reset? Respond? No such luck. The lead was doubled when Maghoma’s inability to bring the ball under control 35 yards from goal allowed Ruben Rodrigues to nip in, nudge a ball through for Murphy, who finished well after rounding Baxter.

It takes something special to be booed off at Wembley. Owen Coyle’s side managed it against Stoke City in 2011 and it was the same heartbreaking tone this time around.

Would we get a reaction? Sadly not. Murphy should have scored more, wasting some glorious chances in the second half, while Bolton’s only effort in their death throes was a header over the bar from Cameron Jerome.

Once Maghoma finally succumbed to injury, his replacement Kyle Dempsey at last brought some energy to the game. After 10 minutes even he had blended into the ennui.

Evatt’s other substitutions were ineffective. His desperation to try and change the game understandable but the complete lack of urgency at times was hard to watch. By the time the fourth official showed nine minutes of added time, a third of the Bolton supporters had gone home and none of the others believed any sort of comeback was possible.

Wanderers players and manager sat out on the turf to watch Oxford lift the trophy. It was difficult to tell if that was just part of the logistics or if this was the only form of punishment the manager could muster at such short order.

Fans will want answers as to why this abject failure happened – not just the 99 minutes against Oxford, but the inconsistent and frustrating months that led up to it.

Will Evatt have the answers? Will he want to be the man to voice them?

After Wembley woe, this promises to be a pivotal pre-season for Bolton Wanderers and their young manager.