Bolton Wanderers 1
The First Division's bottom team, Notts County, made a mockery of the disparity between themselves and Bolton, the leaders, in a match which reserved its most eventful moments for the final 18 minutes at Meadow Lane last night.
No sooner had Owen Coyle's fifth goal of the season given Bolton visions of an undeserved victory - and a four-point cushion over Tranmere and Middlesbrough - than their goalkeeper, Keith Branagan, was sent off. Almost immediately, County had a plausiblepenalty appeal rejected when Andy Legg appeared to be brought down, but before they had time to reflect on the referee's refusal, Rob Matthews volleyed an 81st-minute equaliser.
Branagan's professional foul on Paul Devlin five minutes earlier could scarcely have been more ill-timed. The Republic of Ireland B international will now be suspended for the home leg of the Coca-Cola Cup semi-final against Swindon.
With the first instalment scheduled for Sunday, County may have done Bruce Rioch's job for him by disabusing Bolton of any delusions of grandeur. They arrived buoyed by successive 5-1 wins, yet could easily have become Howard Kendall's most prestigious victims in his new career by the Trent.
With another Merseyside refugee, Steve Nicol, pulling the strings in midfield, County dominated the first hour. Translating possession into scoring opportunities proved more troublesome, although Phil Turner sent one 20-yard drive just wide and Andy Leggwent close with a back-header from a cross by the lively Devlin.
Bolton were more purposeful after the break. In the 72nd minute, still against the run of play, Coyle nodded home from Mixu Paatelainen's centre, and it seemed that County's pleasing but punchless approach work was to be in vain.
It was perhaps fitting, in view of Jason McAteer's appearance on A Question of Sport earlier in the evening, that the game suddenly developed into an extended version of "What happened next?". Not for the first time in Bolton's history, a player called Matthews supplied the most damaging answer, the substitute's equaliser so disappointing Rioch that he declined to give any post-match interviews.
Notts County (4-4-2): Kearton; Mills, Murphy, Hogg, Johnson; Simpson (Matthews, 69), Turner, Nicol, Legg; Agana, Devlin. Substitutes not used: White, Reece (gk).
Bolton Wanderers (4-4-2): Branagan; Green, Coleman, Stubbs, Phillips; Lee (Davison, 77), McAteer, Sneekes, Thompson; Coyle (DeFreitas, 89), Paatelainen. Substitute not used: Lydiate.
Referee: Paul Alcock (Surrey).