Bolton's Premier League nous, which has been earned the hard way over a number of years, should be enough to keep them up but Reading will have to prepare themselves for a prolonged relegation battle after slipping into the bottom four yesterday.
Goals in each half by Kevin Nolan and Heidar Helguson brought the visitors their first away win of the season – and their first anywhere this year. They could even afford an early penalty miss by Matt Taylor and still inflict a sixth successive league defeat on Reading, who are learning some harsh lessons.
Perversely, manager Steve Coppell seems more chipper now that he has a fight on his hands than he did when all-comers were being trounced in their promotion year, or when plaudits were heaped on them last season. He talked before the game about the need for "mental toughness" for what is likely to be a nervous run-in and had not changed his tune afterwards.
"We did nothing to give us comfort for the rest of the season," Coppell, said smiling sheepishly. "I have to reassess what we are doing. We are competing in the best league in the world and have to show improvement."
Bolton have been trying to recapture the form they showed towards the end of the year, when Manchester United, Wigan and Birmingham were all beaten. Yesterday they went some way towards achieving that and look to possess enough quality to survive. Manager Gary Megson may have lost Nicolas Anelka to Chelsea but he has brought in Gary Cahill, Gretar Steinsson and Taylor, who came in for a combined £12 million, he appears to have bought well. With Ivan Campo, Nolan and Kevin Davies also impressing – Megson picked out the last two for special praise – this was too potent a mix for Reading.
"I was delighted with the result if not the performance," Megson said. "We can play a lot better than that but, because of the circumstances we are in, there is a lot of apprehension. You need to be solid but people say we can't score enough goals. Thankfully, we did that today."
Reading started brightly. Stephen Hunt showed a neat piece of skill to trick Davies into a foul, Jussi Jaaskelainen punching away the subsequent free-kick. And Cahill slipped to allow Leroy Lita in on goal but Jaaskelainen was alert to the danger.
Taylor failed then to capitalise at the other end. Marek Matejovsky, making his full debut for Reading, brought down Gretar Steinsson inside the area after 25 minutes but Taylor's spot-kick was stopped low to Marcus Hahnemann's left.
The American keeper was rewarded with chants of USA but there was nothing he could do to prevent Bolton taking the lead nine minutes later. Hunt and Campo had a minor spat deep in Bolton's half – a case of perms at 10 paces – and Jaaskelainen's free-kick was punted long into Reading's area, where Davies nodded it down to Nolan and he finished with the minimum of fuss from 10 yards.
It was a familiar pattern after the interval; Reading showing all the intent, yet Bolton nicking one on the counter-attack. Cahill, who grew in assurance as the game wore on, did well to keep out Kevin Doyle, Nicky Shorey's corners were twice deflected towards his own goal by Campo, and Ivar Ingimarsson hooked the ball wide after a frantic period of Reading pressure.
Yet Bolton doubled their lead just before the hour mark when Taylor's shot was blocked by Graeme Murty, the ball ran for Helguson and he slotted it under Hahnemann without a defender in sight. It was his second of the season, but he has been out with an ankle injury since August and could be pleased with his day's work.
At least the carbon footprints left by Bolton's El-Hadji Diouf and the Royals' Ibrahima Sonko were not entirely for nothing. Both jetted back from the African Nations Cup in Ghana on private planes, and in Diouf's case in the early hours of yesterday, and they were called upon in a flurry of substitutions midway through the second half.
Six new faces, but the script remained the same and Bolton can now face the remainder of the season with renewed hope. For Reading, there is a growing sense of unease.