THE inquest has opened into Bolton Wanderers’ season and exactly where the club go from here after two unsuccessful stints in the play-offs.

Anger has not subsided among the supporters after a defeat against Oxford United that cut far deeper than the 2-0 scoreline suggested.

The bravado, the confidence, the Stone Roses soundtrack and the post-Barnsley beers have all given way to a brooding frustration and the hunt for accountability looks set to continue for some time.

Ian Evatt fuelled talk about his own future with his words directly after the game, or more specifically his reluctance to confirm that any remedial work to be done this summer will be carried out by him, and him alone.

There have been times over the last 10 months where criticism has not sat well with the Bolton boss, either from the media, the supporters, or the more faceless corners of social media. But Saturday’s humbling defeat has seemingly declared open season, and his reaction to that may well shape what happens in the coming weeks.

Make no mistake, Evatt’s stock is high. Though sections of the Bolton support have taken issue with his sentiments, his character, his style of play, his record as manager and the fact his team has improved its lot in each of the four seasons he has been in charge is not a common thing in football, nor should we lose respect for what he has given to the club.

The game can be brutal. Norwich City sacked David Wagner within hours of their play-off semi-final defeat to Leeds United in the Championship but such knee-jerk behaviour would be entirely out of character for the owners at Bolton. Their faith in Evatt – voiced so passionately as part of her speech in Parliament last week by chairman Sharon Brittan – is extremely strong.

Any change at the top would almost certainly emanate from Evatt’s own reading of the situation. If he feels that this is the time to step away, then he deserves his flowers. If he can lock down on what he feels needs to be changed, then he also deserves another shot.

But make no mistake, by missing out on promotion in successive seasons there will be little grace given if things don’t go to plan from August onwards against a League One roster that includes some formidable adversaries.

Phil Parkinson is back with Wrexham, Stockport will provide another dose of local rivalry, Wigan may have a different financial structure but in Shaun Maloney have a manager who has excelled in difficult circumstances, while Rotherham United and Huddersfield Town have appointed some course specialists in Michael Duff and Steve Evans. And all of that doesn’t even consider the ultra-dangerous Peterborough United, an improving Charlton Athletic, or the ever-awkward Barnsley.

Evatt has to identify exactly what has been missing, and one would suggest that will mean a real root and branch review of his first team squad.

With very few players out of contract, it is not a simple decision. Strikers Cameron Jerome and Jon Dadi Bodvarsson are up this summer, as are loanees like Zac Ashworth, Calvin Ramsay and Nat Ogbeta.

Paris Maghoma won’t be within reach now that Bolton have failed to make the Championship, which is another bitter pill to swallow.

There are players within the squad who will feel they should be playing at a higher level. Strikers Aaron Collins and Dion Charles are two examples, but the inconvenient truth for Bolton is that agents will be looking to get their clients out of League One if they can, for that is the way of things.

Wanderers remain a big club in this tar pit of a division but regardless of fanbase, history and a feelgood narrative, there are no divine rights. Like Evatt, there may be players who have to make choices based on their career.

Will they ever get a better chance than they did on Saturday? One can only hope.

Solving the puzzle is by no means straightforward. But perhaps the first step to redemption is realising that there have been too many times where this group of players have shown they cannot be trusted in the highest-pressure situations?

That accusation has been fired at Ian Evatt on several occasions this season, usually to some degree of resistance. On Saturday it was posed to him once again but this time with little resistance.

Bolton did not get automatic promotion this season because they did not perform at Portsmouth, nor did they show the requisite ruthlessness against Pompey at home. They lost a game at Derby despite dominating, self-combusted at Reading, were wasteful at Exeter, scrappy at Stevenage, woeful at home to Carlisle and Wigan.

It is easy to brush off individual disappointments as ‘just a one-off’ but over the course of a whole season it is easier to identify traits and trends. And in the opinion of this writer the mentality of this squad is not yet strong enough to get out of League One.

Near-enough every club can point to an injury sob story and Bolton will say that after going into 2024 in a strong position at the top of the league, losing Nathan Baxter, Dion Charles, Ricardo Santos, Carlos Mendes Gomes et al was a hammer blow. George Johnston didn’t kick a ball competitively this season, and his absence has been just as significant.

Misfortune is relevant. But so is entitlement. It was made abundantly clear that a top-two position was the target from the moment last year’s play-off semi-final was over, and the hubris within Bolton’s squad has rarely dipped ever since.

When Barnsley were vanquished in this season’s play-offs the sense of relief conjured a pitch invasion from supporters and scenes of celebration among the players which were picked up by the TV cameras. Those words, those images were used as ammunition by Des Buckingham in the build up to the final, so with hindsight, now feel like a mistake.

The hunger to blood-let shows no sign of abating. Fans are understandably upset at the fact such a golden opportunity was blown in front of the nation’s eyes.

Every player could be marched in front of the cameras to offer their heartfelt apology but, in truth, would that make a difference? Of course not.

This is a significant mis-step. It need not be a definitive one and though emotions are raw right now it won’t diminish the hope and optimism when we get going again in August.

But there is also a need for answers, a need for action. This was not unlucky.

If Evatt and his team are truly as good as they so often bill themselves then they must find whatever ingredient is missing and add it quickly.