There are times when football feels desperately unfair. It was unfair that a game as poor as this should have been graced by a goal of any nature, and doubly unfair that when it arrived, four minutes into injury time, it went not to Watford, who had three times emerged from the dire hodgepodge of aimless hoofing to hit the woodwork, but to Bolton Wanderers.
The home side had not managed a meaningful shot on target until then, but when Danny Shittu tripped Idan Tal, Gary Speed thrashed in the resulting penalty.
"I thought it was a staggering performance," their manager, Aidy Boothroyd, said. "If I focus on the short term I'm very disappointed, but on another day we might have won by three or four. If you hit the woodwork three times and the keeper four, statistically you know that eventually you'll get results."
Damien Francis struck the post midway through the first half as Bolton failed to deal with Ben Foster's long free-kick, but it was in the final 10 minutes that Watford really went through agonies. First, Ashley Young, dangerous early on but rather negated by Bolton's switch from 4-3-3 to 4-1-4-1 nine minutes before half-time, jabbed a shot against the bar, and then, in stoppage time, Malky Mackay clipped the top of the crossbar as he met Young's free-kick with a firm header.
That makes this sound like a game that buzzed with incident. It was not, but Watford certainly had the better of what football was played. "People," a put-upon Lloyd Doyley said last week, "have a tendency to confuse direct football with long- ball football."
Odd, that: perhaps it is because they both involve the ball being clumped 60 yards forward in the air. Both Bolton and Watford regularly express frustration that they do not get the credit their football deserves - and both are, without question, capable of attractive football - but whatever euphemism you care to use, when two sides are intent on "getting the ball forward quickly" and "playing at a high tempo", the spectacle tends not to be aesthetically pleasing.
"We knew what kind of game it would be," Sam Allardyce said, "but we thought we'd deal with it better. And they shouldn't consider changing, because that style has brought them success. Today Watford had the opportunities to beat us on a couple of set-plays, but that's typical of what happens in the Premiership.
"Two weeks ago at Charlton we were as sick as they are today when we dominated the game and lost 2-0. That's why we signed Nicolas Anelka, because he can put the ball in the back of the net. Watford didn't have that player today."
Anelka himself was reduced largely to the status of an ant beneath the net at Wimbledon, watching the ball balloon hopelessly back and forth over his head until being substituted with tight calves after 69 minutes. When Bolton's record signing said he was missing the Premiership, this surely was not what he had in mind.
"It was three points we perhaps didn't deserve but we gratefully accept," Allardyce said. "When we wake up and look in the paper it's seven points, and results are all that matter in this game."
That may be true, and the success of Bolton's utili-tarianism can hardly be doubted, but it does not make for particularly watchable football.Reuse content