Rovers Under-21s made a disappointing start to the new year, losing 3-0 away to Bolton Wanderers.
Bolton striker Conor Wilkinson scored two and set one up, as Iain Brunskill’s side eased to victory at the County Ground.
On a night of few bright points for Rovers, Tommy Spurr came through 65 minutes unscathed on his return to action from a second groin operation.
The fans favourite is yet to feature for the first team this season, but handed watching Rovers boss Gary Bowyer a timely boost ahead of Sunday’s Championship clash with Wolves.
On a bitterly cold evening in Leyland, Rovers made a lively start, winning a corner straight from the kick-off. Connor Mahoney delivered from the right, but Dean Rittenberg planted his header narrowly over from close range.
That was as good as it got for Eric Kinder’s side in the first half, as Bolton soon started to take control.
On five minutes, they opened the scoring. Oscar Threlkeld threaded the ball through to Sanmi Odelusi. Jake Kean came rushing off his line to smother the striker’s shot, but the ball broke to Wilkinson, who coolly slotted it into the empty net.
It was almost 2-0 on nine minutes, as the impressive Jay Spearing curled a free-kick into the box. The ball eluded everyone in the middle and whistled just past the far post.
Kean was then called upon to make a strong one-handed save to keep out Wilkinson’s crisp left-foot strike on 13 minutes, before Chris Lester pulled the resultant corner back to the unmarked Spearing, who blazed over the bar.
Bolton’s second duly arrived on 20 minutes, courtesy of a well-worked team goal. Building from back to front, the ball was played into the feet of Wilkinson, who cut in from the right, before slipping in Lester, who finished through Kean’s legs from a tight angle.
Rovers finally got a foothold in the game with a trio of chances just past the half-hour mark. On 32 minutes, a poor clearance fell kindly to Rittenberg, who failed to lob the Bolton keeper, who was well off his line.
A minute later, Devarn Green cut the ball back to Bradley Bauress, but the Rovers skipper fired wide on the volley. Rittenberg’s glancing header was then well kept out, following Mahoney’s right-wing cross.
The final chance of the half fell to the hosts, as Odelusi’s effort from the edge of the area looped up off a Rovers defender, forcing Kean to tip the ball over the bar.
Bolton continued where they left off at the start of the second half, with Spearing seeing a stunning 25-yard strike, which seemed destined for the top corner, palmed around the post by Kean on 51 minutes.
Two minutes later, it was 3-0. Odelusi played the ball down the left to Georg Iliev, who centred for Wilkinson and the Bolton number nine stroked home his second of the match.
The same trio combined on 64 minutes, as Odelusi again broke down the left, before finding Wilkinson in the centre. This time the ball broke to Iliev, who shot inches past the post, via the aid of a slight deflection. From the resulting corner, Alex Finney fired over from close range.
Former Bolton skipper Spearing was replaced on 73 minutes and from then on Rovers gained the upper hand. Two minutes later, Jack Doyle’s cross-shot from the left almost caught out Ross Fitzsimons, who had to back-pedal to tip the ball over the bar.
On 79 minutes, Rittenberg played a precise through ball to Green, who looked to lift the ball over the advancing keeper, but he just got too much on it.
Rittenberg was then replaced by Jordan Preston and the Scottish striker made an immediate impact, unleashing a stinging shot from inside the area, which forced Fitzsimons into a fine reaction save.
Bolton registered the final chance of the game, three minutes from time, as Threlkeld found himself one-on-one with Kean, but the Rovers stopper made a smart save with his legs.
Rovers now turn their attentions to the Under-21 Premier League Cup and a last 16 tie at home to Aston Villa at Leigh Sports Village on Monday January 12th.
"It is a fact that if you come up against an experienced side then we are going to struggle," said Under-21s coach Eric Kinder.
"But there is no excuse for the first 20 minutes, we gave ourselves a mountain to climb and it was always going to be too much for us to do.
"In the second half we were much better and to be fair to them they kept going and they kept having a go.
"We competed better, the first 20 minutes was unacceptable, but the rest of the game was okay, but we have to be better than that.
"We are a young inexperienced side in a very tough league."
BOLTON: Fitzsimons, McNaughton, Maher, Finney, Taylor, Spearing (Woodland 73), Lester, Threlkeld, Wilkinson (Woolery 86), Iliev, Odelusi (Matthews 80).
Subs not used: Campbell, Holding.
Goals: Wilkimson (5, 53), Lester (20).
ROVERS: Kean, Thomson (Nyambe 25), Lavelle, Jones, Spurr (Wall 65), Mahoney, Carson, Bauress, Doyle, Green, Rittenberg (Preston 80).
Subs not used: Crump, Joel.