By Dave Messenger
A funny thing happened on the way to the game. Cruising along the M6, I overtook a lorry just at the exact moment that the articulated beast ran over a carton of milk that had somewhat bizarrely found itself in the middle of the slow lane. The explosion of cow juice momentarily blinded me and only sharp reactions with the windscreen wipers allowed us to continue the journey. Not a good start, then. My day was further soured (I thank you) by a lower back injury picked up in WIFC's draw with Birmingham and then to compound the run of bad luck further, we arrived too late to avail ourselves of the excellent facilities of the Saddlers Social Club. Having been converted to the religion of believing in omens during the epic win at Sunderland, it didn't look good.
If bad luck was the story of the morning, surprises were the order of the day after entering the compact Bescot Stadium. First, they've knocked up a stand behind the opposite goal, though you have to wonder whether it was to cram in more Walsall fans, or to promote a certain loan company, whose distinctive logo was plastered all over the construction and was clearly visible from the M6. Secondly, the anticipated return of Sean Dyche for the suspended Neil Cox hadn't happened as Mrs Dyche had gone into labour, we later discovered. Instead, Ray Lewington reverted to a 3-5-2 and recalled Lloyd Doyley and Wayne Brown to partner Marcus Gayle, with Stephen Glass also returning to the team at wingback. Jamie Hand was back in midfield while the unfortunate Tommy Smith's place was taken by Jason Norville.
All of these changes led to a strange opening ten minutes, as Watford came to terms with their different shape, not to mention the drastic change in personnel. The Hornets looked in good touch though, and Heidar Helguson had the first attempt at goal after some good work from young Norville, who looked bright on his full debut. The next moment of note came when the linesman on the right hand touchline pulled up lame, to the delight of a not altogether sympathetic crowd, as both sets of supporters waved the hapless flagsman on his way. The change in lino didn't make much of a difference to the game as both sides continued to battle for midfield supremacy.
Walsall's first effort came from a Junior header, which was comfortably fielded by Alec Chamberlain after which Watford began to take control of the game as Micah Hyde began to stamp his influence. Norville might have done better having turned his marker to fire in an effort, while Stephen Glass' twenty-five yard drive was charged down by ex-Hornet Darren Bazeley. The full back got a decent reception from the travelling fans, but it must be noted that he seems to age another five years each time we see him, maybe the latest grey hairs came about as a result of McNamee's tormenting at the Vic in September. But I digress....
On twenty-five minutes, a deep cross from the silver-haired right back seemed to be sailing harmlessly over the bar to derision from the away end. Only three people in the entire ground seemed to watch the ball sail on and as it dipped at the last minute, one of them, Alec Chamberlain, was taken out of the action by the bounce off the corner of the post and crossbar. The second, Zdrilic, hooked the ball back into the box where the last person paying attention, the unmarked Junior, guided a header into the gaping net. It was as soft a goal as they come and twenty-five minutes of hard work was undone.
As has happened too often on our travels this season, the goal gave the home side a much needed boost and sent Watford retreating into their shells. Prompted by their impressive new signing Robinson, the Saddlers created chances. The former Wolves and Pompey schemer had a couple of decent chances himself, Gayle was on hand to make a timely goal-line clearance from Corica and Junior went close with a header from a trademark Bazeley cross. It was frustrating stuff, as the Hornets seemed unable to get a hold of the ball and surrendered possession too many times. We were ragged and needed the half-time break. When it came, Watford left the field looking like a punch-drunk boxer who'd been hauled off the ropes by the trainer.
Half-Time Lucky Chocolate: The Milky Bars were on me (or my car to be more precise)
Level of Success: Negligible...
If we thought that Watford were going to come flying back at them in the second half, it didn't transpire. Walsall picked up where they left off and dominated the early second half exchanges, without creating many clear-cut chances. Corica had a goal-bound shot charged down by an otherwise lacklustre Jamie Hand while Watford's rearguard was regularly tested by a series of useful crosses from Bazeley and the white-booted, glove-wearing blouse Aranalde. Watford did come close during this spell as Norville was set clear by Gayle and fired in a low cross-shot, which evaded the onrushing Helguson as well as the far post.
It was the last action for the youngster as he was replaced by GNW. Norville could consider himself unlucky, and not just because Dave Perahia kept calling him Fabian. There were certainly other candidates to be replaced and Norville was frequently let down by the service as he received the ball in the air, rather than on the deck where he might have been able to utilise his pace. However, the introduction of Noel-Williams gave Watford an outlet and half-chances started to come, Helguson tested Walker after being set up by a super Hyde through-ball and Noel-Williams himself diverted a Mahon cross wide of the post.
Watford continued to huff and puff, while Walsall looked dangerous on the break. After a nasty clash of heads with Helguson, Saddlers defender Carbon, who was himself a first half sub for the injured Hay, had to be replaced. This left a re-organised Walsall back-line, which included Bazeley as one of three centre halves. Sensing our chance, the hitherto subdued away end sparked into life and encouraged Watford on. With just under twenty minutes to go, our best chance of the game fell to Helguson. Set up by some good play between Hyde and Glass, the Icelandic international blasted his shot straight at Walker.
You couldn't help but feel it wasn't going to be our day right there and then. McNamee replaced Hand and Nielsen came on for Doyley as Watford continued to try and prise out a goal, but the Saddlers still threatened on the break. Zdrilic twice came close to putting the game beyond Watford, drifting one header wide and forcing Chamberlain into a fine stop. At the other end, a half cleared Watford corner fell to Hyde on the edge of the box and as he tried to tee up a shot, the ball was nicked from his toe and played out to Matias. The Walsall sub ran fully fifty yards before picking out Leitao with a fine floated cross, which the Portuguese striker headed firmly home. Game, set and match. As the game drifted to a close, Helguson and McNamee both had speculative efforts but it never really looked likely that Watford would score.
My old man once uttered a phrase, which I've always remembered. "After the Lord Mayor's Show comes an old boy with a shovel and a shit-cart". It seems perfectly apt to describe this game after the highs of Sunderland. Too many players were not at the races and Walsall fully deserved their win. Still, there's no point crying over the milk that's spilt all over my car (I thank you, I'm here for three more nights) and it's not as if disappointing away days have been a rarity this season. We're still watching and enjoying a good campaign, a fact that the fickle few who booed Watford from the field at both half and full-time might do well to remember. This defeat certainly doesn't seal our fate as far as the play-offs are concerned, so it's all to play for at Wolves....