The senseless sending-off of Ivan Klasnic just before the interval suggested that newly promoted Norwich City would be able to coast to a first victory of the new campaign, such was the comfort of their first-half situation.
Like many teams before them, however, they were confounded by the baffling tendency of opponents proving to be more dangerous with 10 men than 11 and, but for a brilliant reaction save by John Ruddy in the closing seconds, would have endured a frustrating journey back to East Anglia.
In command after Anthony Pilkington and Bradley Johnson had punished slackness in the home defence with goals in quick succession at the end of a tight first period, the visitors had to hang on desperately to preserve their hard-earned spoils in the face of a spirited rally by Owen Coyle's team.
"We deserved it," was a relieved Paul Lambert's verdict after he made six changes to his Norwich line-up. "Sometimes you have to make difficult decisions for the good of the club," Lambert added. "They all responded superbly."
Lambert refused to make an issue of his team's remarkable sequence of conceding a penalty in all five of their matches so far. This latest award for a Leon Barnett foul on David Ngog looked a soft one from Howard Webb, last year's World Cup final referee, but Lambert did not contest it. "It was a penalty so we move on," he said. "But it has to stop. We can't go on with a record like this one."
The penalty was just the tonic Bolton needed with more than half of the second half left, and they almost won back the favours of their disgruntled supporters, who have now endured five successive home defeats – their worst run in 108 years. Ngog, who had earned that 64th-minute decision from which Martin Petrov launched the salvage operation, would have been the Reebok hero on his second match since arriving on a three-year contract from Liverpool but for Ruddy's last-ditch defiance.
For Norwich, this was their most impressive performance since reclaiming elite status, albeit against a misfiring Bolton outfit. Having opened their campaign so spectacularly by demolishing last season's Championship winners, QPR, Bolton relished the chance to lock horns with another of the promoted teams after being outclassed in their three intervening fixtures against the big guns of Manchester City, Liverpool and Manchester United.
Lambert's men were in no mood to help restore Bolton's shattered confidence, however, and swiftly sensed that this was a glorious opportunity to open their own winning account.
So it proved as England's Gary Cahill and his central defensive colleague Zat Knight were embarrassed twice in quick succession from right-flank set-pieces.
Firstly, from David Fox's 37th- minute corner they allowed opposing centre-back Barnett to win a vital close-range header which led to Steve Morison setting up a Pilkington tap-in.
Then, five minutes later, Johnson escaped his marker Dedryck Boyata from a Fox free-kick and cleverly angled a header past the flailing arms of Jussi Jaasklelainen.
Bolton's despair was compounded by Klasnic's inexcusable bout of indiscipline. Waiting in the penalty area for a throw-in he clashed with Marc Tierney and then thrust his head into the face of the full-back.
"It was an act of folly," said Coyle. "If you do that you are likely to get a red card and that's what happened. The lads worked their socks off afterwards to get back into it and it needed a wonderful save at the end to stop us. But our problems are being self-inflicted. To concede two goals from set-pieces the way we did was not good enough. We had a fantastic home record last season and we need to rekindle that."
Bolton (4-4-2): Jaaskelainen; Boyata, Cahill, Knight, Robinson; Tuncay (Eagles, 45), Pratley (M Davies, 74), Reo Coker, Petrov; K Davies (Ngog, 45), Klasnic.
Norwich (4-4-1-1): Ruddy; Naughton, Barnett, Martin, Tierney; Bennett, Fox, B Johnson, Pilkington (Vaughan, 77); Hoolahan (Crofts, 87); Morison (Holt, 77).
Referee: Howard Webb.
Man of the match: Hoolahan (Norwich)Reuse content