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03/04: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 14/10/03, 7.45pm
By Matt Rowson

Of all the marvellous and epic wastes of time that dwell in the nooks and crannies of the internet, there can't be many to compare to The Degree Confluence Project. To quote the site, "The goal of the project is to visit each of the latitude and longitude integer degree intersections in the world, and to take pictures at each location". The website diligently and comprehensively reports the Confluences that have already been visited by disciples of the project, as well as acting as a repository for their photographs. There is also a explanatory narrative accompanying each visit, which doesn't always stick to the script, such as it is, but tends to wander off and discuss the facial expressions of cattle in the field adjoining the Confluence point or anything else that takes the reporter's fancy. Regular readers of these previews will presumably find little to object to here.

The ethos of the project may seem thoroughly whimsical, but there's something about the idea that profoundly appeals, and not just to the statistician in me that appreciates order and structure. There's a suggestion of purpose here... satisfying the need to visit new places whilst providing a reason to stray from the beaten track in search of the field, pile of rubble, or whatever that fate happens to have dumped on this geographical curiosity.

And so we move on to Paul Merson and Walsall. My first thought (beyond "how the hell do I work Confluence into a Walsall preview?") was that the Midlands club must lie within shouting distance of a Confluence point that the former Portsmouth man wanted to grab a picture at, but it would appear that the nearest such point (53ºN, 2ºW) is in a farm just outside the village of Cheadle in Staffordshire some forty miles away, so this seems a somewhat implausible explanation.

Which leaves us in a bit of a quandary as regards what the hell Merson is doing at the Bescot Stadium. With all due respect to Walsall, they do seem intent upon wedging themselves firmly between two stools. Whilst they would fit snugly into the lazy stereotype of a game smaller club making a decent go at life in the relative heights of Division One (this being the first time they've ever enjoyed a three-year spell at this level), some of the summer signings, particularly that of Merson, suggest at loftier ideas. Thing is, you can't see Walsall ever quite being a big club, or even an up-its-own-arse medium-sized club like Reading, so quite which niche they're hoping to fit into is a bit of a mystery.

Perhaps fortunately, Walsall's away form thus far has been completely dismal and even at home they've never revisited the heights suggested by their attention-grabbing demolition of West Brom on the opening day. Manager Colin Lee has surely defied the expectations of all those still burdened by the uncomfortable memory of his eight months in charge at Vicarage Road by apparently making a decent job of keeping Walsall in Division One for a couple of seasons. Now, however, perhaps with expectations heightened by the summer arrivals, there is much unrest on Saddlers messageboards with "Fragile, Unorganised, Inept" being one pithy summary of the side's performance at Burnley. Lee has juggled uncertainly with formations, and noticeably still makes a habit of filling his side with old mates from his previous clubs.

Jimmy Walker will be in goal for the Saddlers... one resolutely silver lining to the season thus far, the veteran of over four hundred Walsall games has been in fine form. His cover is former Wolves trainee Aaron Kerr.

Lee has switched between a back five and a back four - sometimes within a single game - but one certainty seems to be on-loan Chris Baird at right-back. The Northern Ireland international made only his second start for Southampton in last year's F.A.Cup Final, and has impressed since his arrival at the Bescot. His introduction has seen Darren Bazeley (ex- of Watford and Wolves) relegated to the bench.

Spaniard Zigor Aranalde will play on the left of the back four or left of the central three in a back five. He still gets as much stick on the messageboards as he did last season, although I haven't been able to ascertain whether he still wears silly red boots. In the centre, stopper Neil Emblen (ex- of Wolves) partnered Danny Hay at Turf Moor, but Hay was unimpressive and is expected to step down again with Scot Paul Ritchie now free from suspension. Ian Roper has also been out with a groin injury, but returned for the Saddlers' reserves in midweek. Matt Carbon, who took a sabbatical to consider his options outside football, obviously reached a rapid conclusion as he's back at the Bescot, albeit several weeks from fitness and without a contract as yet.

In midfield, Pedro Matias has been playing on the left, or as left wingback depending on formation. He set up Walsall's late clincher against us at the Bescot last season. Elsewhere Jamie Lawrence (ex- of Leicester) has been playing like an arse, but Gary O'Neil looks a decent loan signing from Pompey and has been a source of optimism in recent games. Vinny Samways, now thirty-four, has also impressed, but has been hit by a supplementary two-game ban for getting a bit gobby after a sending off at Stoke earlier in the season and misses Tuesday's game. That Spurs schooling, it stays with you.

Other midfield options include Simon Osborn (ex- of Reading and Wolves) who is likely to come in for Samways, Stefan Oakes (ex- of Leicester, brother of that nice Scott lad who used to play up the road) and Steve Corica (ex- of Leicester and Wolves), who is not looking like Mr.Popular at Walsall after a series of lardy performances culminating in a tantrum and a storm away from the ground when dropped recently. Darren Wrack, a regular fixture on the right, has been out with a calf problem but may be back in time to feature.

Merson has been employed just behind the main striker, and despite chipping in with a healthy six goals already, has not been contributing as much as hoped amidst fears that his considerable (if slightly slower) assets are being wasted.

Up front, Jorge Leitão has looked isolated, with the general feeling appearing to be that he'd have a hard enough time cutting it in a front two. Popular opinion seems to favour supporting him with either youngster Gary Birch or highly rated seventeen year old Matt Fryatt. Deon Burton was a bit rubbish for a month on loan from Pompey whither he has now returned, rumours suggest that Mark Burchill could be brought in as an extra loan option. Both Junior and David Zdrilic moved on in the summer.

This match will be eagerly awaited in Hertfordshire, coming ten days after the hugely encouraging and stirring win at Crewe and at the nose of three home games in eight days. It looks winnable. Bring it on.

Meanwhile, I'll be within range of 9ºN, 39ºE early next year. If anyone has a spare GPS I could borrow, I would be eternally grateful...