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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 21/02/04, 3.00pm
Parker Knoll
By Ian Grant

Come on.

It became something of a standing joke around these parts last week, this sudden and unexpected enthusiasm for a freezing February trip to the Bescot Stadium after such a feeble away attendance record throughout the rest of the season. But, you know, it happens sometimes. That feeling. That restless urge to participate rather than merely listen in from the sofa. And besides, this was the most important game of the season, right?


Because, between fixtures against two in-form sides from which we'd gained four points and a whole load of encouragement and fixtures against the bottom two, lay this rather uninviting trip to the midlands. And yet, precisely because of its position, an otherwise mundane match took on potentially pivotal significance. A massive, unmissable opportunity to make our move early, to head for the hills with no-one looking. Lose here, and we were back to square one. Win here, which was always a real possibility, and we were suddenly on a bit of a run, nudging towards mid-table with further points on offer over the next couple of weeks. For all that Bradford's free ticket offer has excited interest, this was the match that really mattered. This was our chance.

The details are fairly unimportant, then. Of course, if we were about to discuss a commanding and comprehensive victory over our soon-to-be-struggling opponents, then there truly would be cause for boundless optimism. We're not, there isn't. Instead, this was a very welcome reminder that every team sometimes has to rely on doggedly defending a rather flukey goal for points on the road. Those points count just the same. More significantly, the after-effects - the morale boost, the impact on the league table, the continuation of a potentially decisive run, and so forth - contribute hugely towards the overall aim, to draw a line under this terribly frustrating campaign as quickly as possible. And so, while there's not going to be much about this particular ninety minutes that'll live longer than the end of this report, it still ought to be the most important game of the season, when we look back in May.

For all of that, the football itself had rather more in common with its surroundings. The Bescot Stadium has very little to recommend it, especially given that you can now get balti pies at Vicarage Road. The landscape is dominated entirely by the vast concreteness of the M6 flyover, underneath which various buildings have gained planning permission on the strict condition that they blend in with the utter ugliness of the surrounding area. This is not a place at which you feel at one with nature, frankly. Or, as a passing home fan commented, "You never knew they played football at MFI, did you?" Or "diiid yooow?" to be more accurate.

There is, however, one good reason to return. If you've ever tired of Richard Short's endlessly up-for-it, "ENJOOOOYYYY THE GAAAAAAME!" shoutiness, you need to come here for the antidote. At the Bescot, your compere for the afternoon, whose BBC accent is only slightly betrayed by a hint of the local slur, apparently phones in his announcements from home, where he's relaxing in a Parker Knoll armchair with a glass of fine port, occasionally dipping into a box of expensive truffles. At most grounds, the visiting team is sped through with barely a pause for breath, Christian names often omitted. Here, our friend's undulating tones take us on a gentle ramble through the line-ups, and you almost expect to start hearing little additions....

"At number nineteen, Jerel Ifil. (Pause for sip of port.) At number thirty-four, Jack Smith...I used to know his dad, fine fly fisherman, always got his round in. Number two, Neal Ardley. Number twenty-five, Paul Devlin...once stole some Polos from my brother's sweet shop, I believe. Settled out of court, though. At number eight, Micah Hyde. (Pause to light pipe.) Heh heh. Now, where were we...?"

Marvellous, and rather bewildering stuff, including the announcement of Jamie Hamish Hand among the substitutes. So bewildering, in fact, that I forgot to maintain my very long-standing (literally) superstition of not sitting down until the match has kicked off, a major error which threatened to undermine all of the pre-match, erm, excitement. Fortunately, the confidence - a relaxed, comfortable, purposeful confidence - that had been apparent during the warm-up was not just an illusion. We were to need plenty of luck later on, certainly. But we shouldn't forget the positive and assertive attitude, and the occasionally sparkling football, of the first half hour.

This was very fine indeed. While Walsall tried to work out where our players were - Lee Cook's distinctly erratic positioning suddenly becomes an asset when he's used as part of a front three, especially since Paul Devlin is equally mobile in a rather more aware-of-the-big-picture way - we were whizzing the ball around on the flat, green turf as if we had barely a care in the world. Within a couple of minutes, we were winning a corner and Neil Cox was sending a header sailing into the proportionally curious double-decker home stand; within seven, Neal Ardley was glancing wide from a fine Gavin Mahon cross on the left. And, although Wales might've done better than to shoot weakly at Lenny Pidgeley after Jack Smith had unwisely allowed a high ball to bounce, we were thoroughly dominant in the meantime too.

It should've come to fruition as the clock hit double figures. Then, Neal Ardley's first-time cross from the right seemed to have skidded through too far, although Gavin Mahon retrieved it on the left of the penalty area. Less confident players would've taken a touch, tried to cut inside the defender, and, in all likelihood, been robbed in the process. Instead, the instant half-volley that Mahon's left-foot lashed towards goal took everyone by surprise, thumping against the crossbar with Walker totally beaten and rebounding too acutely for Scott Fitzgerald to squeeze home. Player of the season elect if there were any justice, Gavin Mahon's game continues to reveal itself, and that would've been a truly memorable goal.

Some of our football in this period shone with carefree joy, splendid passing and movement that proved beyond doubt that so much of what we've lost can be recovered with a win or two. As the otherwise silent Walsall fans started to complain, we were threading the ball around the right wing, from Micah Hyde to Paul Devlin to Neal Ardley, with Walker scrambling down to gather the eventual cross. Or we were keeping possession for a minute at a time, shuffling it around before Micah Hyde's drive drifted over the bar. If anything, we were perhaps guilty of a little complacency, never quite capitalising on a spell of such superiority and regretting that lack of ruthlessness when the tables later turned.

Indeed, the goal was somewhat at odds with everything else. Not a complete fluke, perhaps, for both Neal Ardley and Lee Cook battled hard to recover the ball inside the Walsall area after the former's air-kick had set it loose. Still, when the latter did eventually manage to shoot, he only scuffed it vaguely towards the target with his right foot...until the most perfect of deflections, diverting the ball into the bottom corner as Walker watched, intervened in our favour. A completely rubbish goal. But they all count...and this one, ultimately, counted rather more than most....

That Walsall changed to match our formation, pushing Leitao out to the right to occupy the marauding Neal Ardley (yes, really), ought to be taken as something of a compliment, although you'd have to wonder exactly why Colin Lee was so surprised by ploys that had been well trailed in the days leading up to the game. Thereafter, we were never able to dominate so totally, though. Indeed, we were to be rather grateful to our goalkeeper for preserving the lead until half-time....

By then, we'd endured some very nervous moments. Only moments, because the partnership of Sean Dyche and Jerel Ifil continues to offer a fine combination of attributes - the former's no-nonsense approach with the latter's air of slightly Hyde-ish arrogance; lumbering strength with pacy poise; shouty experience with youthful confidence - and showed particularly strongly here, even when it came under sustained pressure after the break. But we weren't always able to counter the aerial threat, and Leitao's looping far post header from a free kick required emergency action from a combination of Lenny Pidgeley and Neil Cox underneath the crossbar as Walsall finally kicked into life on the half hour mark.

A few cracks were starting to appear. The conditions - especially the biting, swirling wind - that we'd previously ignored were suddenly impacting upon our passing game, the midfield that'd previously dominated was suddenly in a bit of a scrap. And, on thirty-seven minutes, we were suddenly in trouble. A simple enough attack, just a flick on a long ball, but it left Leitao with the chance to beat Lenny Pidgeley from six yards...and, even though he hit the first effort into the keeper's chest, it still came back to him for another try. The ball bounced around awkwardly as Neil Cox tried to intervene, then momentarily appeared for Leitao to prod home from barely a yard...and, without having seen a replay, I have no idea how Lenny Pidgeley's right hand could have reacted quickly enough to scoop it out before it crossed the line. An astonishing save, bringing the entire away end to its feet in appreciation.

It would be impossible to come closer without scoring...and Walsall didn't score. Nevertheless, after our friend in the Parker Knoll armchair had guided us through the half-times with the pleasantly surprised tone of a genial primary school headmaster announcing a cup win for the netball team, the remaining forty-five minutes was occupied almost entirely by their attempts to do so. They failed for a number of reasons - plain old bad luck, fine defending, wretched finishing, some borderline decisions from an increasingly irritating referee - and none of them matter nearly as much as the mere fact that they did fail. We rode our luck rather, but we got away with it. That's good enough.

With some overdue encouragement from their fans, the home side began to exert some pressure. And we began to get nervous, retreating a little further with each passing minute...and relying rather too much on our opponents' inability to hit the target with any regularity. Aside from the occasional piece of swashbuckling defending from Jerel Ifil, who was still fortunate to get away with appearing to bundle a goal-bound Leitao to the ground, the elegance of our earlier football was forgotten. This was just a scrap, an old-fashioned down-at-the-bottom-of-Division-One scrap. You just have to win, somehow.

We did, eventually. It took an awfully long time, though. From the fifth minute, when Wales drove hastily at Lenny Pidgeley after an interchange had by-passed Neil Cox, through to the forty-fourth, when Matias' shot flew over the bar from the edge of the area, we were never in control of the game. Indeed, after the arguments surrounding Ray Lewington's substitutions in the later stages of the Sunderland match, it was interesting to see a very similar situation...and, personally, I would've done the same thing again, reinforcing the midfield by bringing on Paolo Vernazza for one of the rather isolated strikers much earlier. Then again, I wouldn't have had to face a barrage of criticism for doing it....

These were tense minutes, so much in the balance. Another long ball, another knock-down, and Lenny Pidgeley did well to push away Emblen's firm drive. A better save was to follow almost immediately, as Micah Hyde's lapse allowed Leitao in, the keeper scrambling down to his right to keep out the low shot. As with several current Watford players - Lee Cook and Scott Fitzgerald spring immediately to mind - Lenny Pidgeley is a conundrum, so much that's good and so much that's frustrating. In particular, I wonder whether there's anything in league regulations to prevent us from attaching bells to his boots, so that his defenders will know where he is?

And on, and on. We broke forward sporadically, without ever looking particularly likely to add to the lead. Although Lee Cook's deflected shot whistled into the side netting and Scott Fitzgerald looped an overhead into the front rows of the away end, we were more often left to voice our encouragement from a distance. The minutes kept ticking by, much too slowly...and the familiar figure of Darren Bazeley sent a familiarly wayward drive over the bar, and Emblen burst through the midfield to shoot at Lenny Pidgeley...and, unable to find a way of making the result safe, the players just kept hanging on and lunging in and heading out, and we just kept encouraging those efforts. And you have to remember that, despite recent experiences, winning First Division football matches often requires no more than that. And a little luck, natch.

Despite the post-match celebrations, we don't yet know what this really means. But we do know what it could mean. For all the talk of the inevitability of a battle against relegation until the end of the season, it's well within our power to change that, quickly and decisively. To put an end to it. Approach the next handful of games in the same positive and confident manner, and that fifty point mark could be within reach much sooner than we'd thought possible. Not what we'd hoped for back in August, perhaps. But a bloody relief nonetheless.

The most important game of the season? Let's make it so.

Come on.