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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 21/02/04, 3.00pm
Crunch time for Colin
By Matt Rowson

So here's the score, right? Two sets of fans completely and unshakably entrenched either side of the case for and against the incumbent manager. A manager who is accused of excessive negativity, collapsing his defence back on itself to protect any semblance of a lead. A squad without any great quality, dependent on the form of a couple of key players to keep the side afloat. A purse that's not so much empty as being rented out as a tobacco pouch to raise a few pennies. And a side that hasn't recorded a win since the turn of the year.

Sound familiar? Funny what a difference a win makes though, eh? Because that will sound an awful lot more familiar to Walsall, still in that rut and still without any light at the end of the tunnel. One website comment talks about Saturday's game as "Crunch time for Colin", another suggests that three points off Watford is a "minimum requirement". Which strikes me as a little bit previous, but then I'm biased.

The former comment, however, highlights a key distinction between the two situations to my mind. I like Ray Lewington, admittedly - I think he's the right manager for us and has made far more good decisions than bad ones in his time in charge. But I find it difficult to believe that even those Watford fans who aren't as convinced would rather have Colin Lee back at the helm, surely the worst Watford manager of the last twenty-five years (if not the most disastrous).

Another distinction between the two set-ups is the nature of the defensive tendency that both sets of fans have complained about. In our case, to my eyes, the sitting back has been a function purely of players' trepidation, cautiousness, not wanting to leave a gap and give away a lead. At Walsall, another factor may be coming into play (and this apart from the possible design of the manager, a design that seems to hang around Lee's neck more plausibly than it hangs around Lewington's). Namely the venerable Walsall side... the average age of the eleven that lined up for the Saddlers at the City Ground was over twenty-nine. The three-man midfield, in particular, is short of legs with veteran Vinny Samways needing someone to do his fetching and carrying for him.

Jimmy Walker is one of Lee's trump cards, the experienced stopper making up for his relative lack of inches with a quality that has seen him linked with moves to top flight sides in the past. His cover at the moment is Andy Petterson, with one of the army of Colin Lee's old Wolves charges, Aaron Kerr, waiting in the wings.

Darren Bazeley at right-back needs no introduction, but he's not been in the best of form of late and saw his place taken by on-loan Chris Baird during Walsall's strongest spell of the campaign. With Baird back at Southampton (and allegedly on the verge of a permanent move to Wigan), Bazeley is back in the side. Left-back is Zigor Aranalde, decent going forward but a liability at the back against far less wily opponents than Paul Devlin. He too lost his place for a spell to a loan signing, but Jamie Vincent has since moved to Derby.

In the centre of defence Paul Ritchie is undoubtedly the star turn; however the Scot, recalled to his national squad this week, has this week all but acknowledged that he'll be looking for a move up the football ladder in the summer. His first choice partner for the moment is Ian Roper, however Roper limped out of the Forest game at the weekend within twenty minutes. Should he be ruled out on Saturday the likeliest replacement is Matt Carbon; Carbon briefly gave up football over the summer only to return to the Bescot after a change of heart, he impressed at the City Ground.

This would free the experienced but immobile Neil Emblen to return to a three man midfield alongside Vinny Samways and Simon Osborn. Samways is back in the fold following a spat with Lee that saw the former Spurs man disappear to Spain, only to relent and return, if only until the end of the season. Osborn, at thirty-two the youngest of the trio, has an irritating habit of scoring against the Hornets, most recently at Vicarage Road in October. Jamie Lawrence, who hasn't entirely convinced since arriving from Bradford, would be another option. At thirty-three he's no spring chicken either... a more welcome inclusion would be former Manchester United youngster, the energetic Kris Taylor who has impressed on his rare chances to shine. Mark Wright can also provide a bit of pace in wide positions whilst Pedro Matias, scorer in this fixture a year ago this weekend, is largely confined to the bench.

Absentees from the midfield include Paul Merson, currently at a clinic in Arizona in the latest move to combat his gambling addiction; most optimistic prognoses have him missing for at least a month. In his absence, Steve Corica returning to fitness and focus would be welcome, but he's out with a persistent hamstring injury. Stefan Oakes has ended his fractious and peripheral role at the Bescot by moving to Notts County this week, whilst Darren Wrack, Samways' chief water-carrier, was sidelined at the weekend with an achilles problem and is only rated as 50:50 for the weekend. Lee appears to have been attempting to strengthen this area, with a move for Manchester United starlet Keiran Richardson being knocked back, and rumours of an attempted second loan move for Gary O'Neil from Pompey.

Up front, Jorge Leitão remains the chief target man, if prone to hot and cold spells of form. Having scored in five of Walsall's last six games, albeit none of them victories, he's a rare plus for the Saddlers at the moment. Wide on the right will be Gary Wales, on loan from Hearts, who has injected some much-needed pace into the side. On the left, Gary Birch seems to be failing to take advantage of a first-team run to the chagrin of the Saddlers' support. Matt Fryatt, Walsall's other first-team striker, is on loan at Carlisle.

A win at the weekend, which seems a whole lot more possible than it would have done a week ago, would draw us level on points with Walsall. As relevantly, it would prolong and deepen the bad spell of one of our relegation rivals.

I've no great dislike for Walsall. But rather them than us.