WHATEVER criticism you might throw Bolton Wanderers’ way these days, a lack of fighting spirit could not possibly be one of them.

Reservations about the quality of Phil Parkinson’s squad, or its tactical flexibility to handle Championship football still remain but just as the doubters’ voices started to dominate Wanderers provided a reminder at Bramall Lane of just how belligerent a team they can be.

This victory, to coin the hosts’ mantra, was forged in Sheffield Steel.

Defeat against Middlesbrough on Boxing Day had – perhaps for the first time – left Parkinson and his side vulnerable to the cynics’ claims they could not cut it at this level.

The manager came out fighting, reminding anyone who cared to listen of the financial challenges he has faced in his 19 months at the Macron, and that expectations should be set accordingly. His point was valid, of course, yet with Wanderers ensconced in the bottom three without an away win all season, sympathy was thin on the ground.

Yet Parkinson and his staff’s biggest achievement since arriving at the Macron did not cost a penny. A spirit which simply did not exist before his arrival helped the Whites seize, and protect, the lead given to them by Gary Madine in the 21st minute, and might just be enough to keep them in this division with a bit of help in January.

The meek second-half display at the Riverside four days earlier had led some to question Wanderers’ safety-first approach on the road. The 4-2-3-1 system had stopped the tailspin in October but undoubtedly has its faults. Parkinson’s response – making five changes and shifting to the 3-5-2 formation which saw his side to promotion last season – was a brave move indeed.

Each and every one of the players who came back into the equation excellent themselves.

Reece Burke blended effortlessly and added a comfort in possession at the back, Antonee Robinson was so effective he forced Chris Wilder to make a substitution 30 minutes into the game, and fans’ favourite Adam Le Fondre buzzed around like an angry wasp, snapping at defender’s ankles and playing a significant part in Madine’s well-worked winner.

Filipe Morais came back for his first start since being red-carded at Bristol City in September, his delivery from set pieces hardly missing a beat.

But the return of Josh Cullen was perhaps the most unexpected bonus of a satisfying afternoon, the West Ham loanee standing out above any of the Blades’ excellent playmakers in his first start for more than three months.

“He was one of the players of the season in League One but he came into a team which was struggling because it was missing key players,” Parkinson said of his former Bradford City charge.

“With some physical strength alongside him in midfield, someone like Karl Henry who is doing an enforcer’s job, he showed what a good player he is. I was so pleased for him because he deserved his opportunity and he took it with both hands.”

Bringing back the three-man defence could have backfired for Parkinson, and such was the mood among Wanderers fans over Christmas you would have feared for the atmosphere against Hull City on New Year’s Day had things panned out differently.

“We played that system a lot last season and we started this year with it and got results at Millwall and Birmingham,” he said. “We got exposed at times, we know that, but I just felt the group needed a bit of a stimulus to freshen things up.

“I wanted to bring players back who had trained well. I always say it in the press but the standard of training from the likes of Le Fondre, Cullen, Morais and Craig Noone – who wasn’t here today – was outstanding and it lets them put in a performance like that.”

Madine had left Bramall Lane in a taxi with head in hands earlier this year when Parkinson pulled him from the squad prior to kick-off. Illness was blamed – and he was certainty sick of ‘that’ Billy Sharp video – but he will be happy to see replays of this game for some time to come.

The striker is fitter, sharper and more confident than at any time in his Wanderers career. Even Chris Wilder – who cut the look of a man who was thoroughly browned off when he finally appeared in the press room after the game – described Madine's display as “outstanding”. Having finished off a great move involving Le Fondre and Robinson midway through the first half Madine should have had a penalty when Cameron Carter-Vickers dragged him down on the edge of the box.

After a dreadful start the home side finally woke up and should have drawn level just before half time when Leon Clarke burst through the middle, only for Ben Alnwick to make a vital save.

Alnwick repeated the trick in the second half, turning aside George Baldock’s stinging shot at his near post.

Clarke also managed to scoop a shot over the bar from close range – another big let off – but for all the pressure, Wanderers’ defending in front of the massive Kop stand was a joy to behold.

Rather than the strains of "You Fill Up My Senses" it was the jaunty notes of "The Great Escape" which could be heard through six minutes of stoppage time.

“I said well done to the lads after the final whistle but they know when we go out on the pitch against Hull we’ve got be right – so that means preparation has to be right," Parkinson warned later.

“If we can back that result up it puts us in a good position. Our aim since the start of the season has been to get to the transfer window in touch with the pack. We’ve done that, and if we can get back-to-back wins then we can really cement the situation."