Championship report: This was a victory for small over big, for poor over rich and, most impressively, for passing football over hoofball.
Bolton, the pre-season promotion favourites who had been making stealthy progress under a new management team, brought hundreds of top flight appearances to London Road, but failed to bring an effective game-plan, an adequate defence and the heart and spirit required to play in conditions so sodden a mermaid would have been a logical selection for the substitutes’ bench.
Apart from the mythical character, Posh had those qualities in abundance. A team put together without the help of Premier League parachute payments delivered a breath-taking performance which was worthy of a far greater reward than a single-goal victory and some heart-stopping late moments.
As Posh boss Darren Ferguson, who is about as funny as Bruce Forsyth most Saturday nights, memorably said on the final whistle: “We were outstanding for 80 minutes and then bang average after that.”
Actually he was only half-joking. When Gaby Zakuani headed home a Lee Tomlin corner eight minutes from time Posh led 5-2 so should have coasted to victory and celebrated moving off the bottom of the table, but Benik Ofobe was promptly left unmarked at a corner to make it 5-3 and substitute Martin Petrov delivered a sublime finish for 5-4 to leave Posh looking anxiously at their watches.
It was so unneccessary (goal difference could well be vital come May), but thankfully justice was done. There were no more alarms and a couple of foul throws from Bolton players saw Posh over the line.
Bottom place at Christmas is obviously not where Posh want to be, but it would be churlish to worry about that now. Wins against two of the Championship big-hitters on successive weekends means turkey can be taken with a smile on the face, although it’s doubtful the most optimistic Posh fan could produce a grin as big as the one worn by Zakuani at the final whistle.
What a collosus this man is when pulling on the blue shirt. Others, particularly Tomlin, George Thorne and Dwight Gayle, delivered more eye-catching footballing performances here, but Zakuani is the warrior that enables others to play.
Bolton started the game trying to out-pass Posh, but it was as though the spirit of Sam Allardyce wafted over London Road at half-time as for the final 40 minutes the visitors launched the ball high and long at every opportunity. They were more effective when ignoring the wet turf, but Posh, with Michael Bostwick matching Zakuani’s power, withstood the battering well until dozing off towards the end.
It would have been a travesty if Posh had not won. Their football was fast, fluent and imaginative enough to make fools out of a back four with plenty of Premier League experience, particularly the central defensive pairing of Harlem Globetrotter-sized Zat Knight and Sam Ricketts.
Knight’s error, and Tomlin’s calmness and quality, saw Posh in front on two minutes and Gayle’s accuracy and agility made it 2-0 on seven minutes with a classy volley (he’d seen a point-blank effort saved by Bolton ‘keeper Adam Bogden moments earlier).
The scorers were outstanding together again. Tomlin also hit a post and forced another fine save by Bogden before George Boyd fired wide in a one-sided first-half which saw Mark Little torment the left side of the visiting defence and Thorne confirm his passing and poise will lead to a long career in the top flight.
But a penalty awarded for an alleged rugby tackle by Zakuani at a corner enabled Keith Andrews to score from the penalty spot in first-half injury time and that one incident changed the game.
Bolton were still vulnerable at the back throughout the second-half, but were far more dangerous going forward and won numerous corners. Posh ‘keeper Bobby Olejnik made two outstanding saves to thwart Andrews and Petrov.
But Posh always looked likely to score as well. Thorne’s goal from the edge of the penalty area three minutes into the second-half was followed by a second Andrews penalty before Little’s goal after some great work by Joe Newell (who had conceded the second penalty) and Zakuani’s header appeared to have seen Posh over the line with smothing to spare,
Of course that’s not how Posh do things. The second-half chances missed by Tomlin and Gayle after some lovely link-up play would also have led to a more comfortable final few minutes.
But it’s been a great eight days and now the challenge is to win three in a row for the first time at this level since 1993. That will be tough for a squad whose strength in depth doesn’t match many other Championship clubs.
Bobby Olejnik: A couple of incredible saves in the second half made up for some iffy distribution 7
Michael Bostwick: His defensive work was immense. Strength came in useful in the conditions 8
Gaby Zakuani: Superb at both ends of the pitch. Dominated Davies and scored a crucial goal 8
Nat Knight-Percival: He has turned into a steady performer, makes few errors 7
Mark Little: His attacking play was top drawer, took his goal superbly 8
Tommy Rowe: Got into the odd tangle, but he brings energy and momentum to the left wing-back role 7
George Thorne: Classy, composed, clever and scored a quality goal 8
Joe Newell: Conceded a daft penalty, but superb run and cross for Little’s goal. He’s a midfielder clearly 7
Lee Tomlin: Brilliant in the first half and occasionally brilliant in the second-half 9
George Boyd: Terrific workrate, intricate passing and only poor finishing spoilt his day 7
Dwight Gayle: Another quality finish and never gave a harrassed defence a moment’s peace 8
Kane Ferdinand: (for Newell, 81 minutes).
Craig Alcock: (for Little, 89 minutes).
Joe Day: (not used).
Shaun Brisley: (not used).
Danny Swanson: (not used).
Danny Kearns: (not used).
Bolton: Adam Bogden, Tyrone Mears, Stephen Warnock, Sam Ricketts, Zat Knight, Jacob Butterfield (sub Benik Ofobe, 53 minutes), Chung Young-Lee (sub Marvin Sordell 53 minutes), Keith Andrews (sub Martin Petrov, 80 minutes), Jay Spearing, Chris Eagles, Kevin Davies. Unused substitutes: Rob Lainton, Marcus Alonso. Tim Ream, Darren Pratley.
Goals: Posh - Tomlin (2 mins), Gayle (7 mins), Thorne (48 mins), Little (69 mins), Zakuani (82 mins).
Bolton - Andrews (pens, 45 mins & 57 mins), Ofobe (84 mins), Petrov (87 mins).
Cautions - Bolton - Butterfield (foul), Davies (foul), Ricketts (foul), Andrews (foul).
Referee: Nigel Miller.