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96/97: Reports:

Nationwide League Division 2, 14/12/96
Walsall 1(1)
Scorers: Keister (36)
Watford 1(1)
Team: Miller 3, Gibbs 4, Robinson 2, Johnson 4, *Millen 4*, Palmer 4, Slater 3, Connolly 2, Noel-Williams 2, Penrice 3, Easton 1
Subs: Andrews, Ward, Ludden (for Easton) 2
Scorers: Johnson (27)
Referee ruins promising game
Report by Ian Grant

Walsall. A club with a programme that does to the English Language what Derek Payne used to do to opposition midfielders (an example: "Then as the forthcoming third round games became identified there would be the sense of tremors of excitement reaching out throughout the country and beyond as fans wondered just how soon they should be joining queues or putting in an application for tickets at a game where supply will be drowned many times over by demand." How's that for a sentence?). Still, at least they're civilised enough to serve chips rather than the usual vegetarian speciality of 'stewed carrots in cardboard'...

The draw takes our unbeaten run to fifteen games - a run which, according to the Walsall programme (let's assume that their factual information is slightly better than their command of English), equals the club record. So why does it feel so completely underwhelming? Clearly we've made ourselves into an awkward side, one that makes the opposition work for their openings, but we seem to lack any kind of killer instinct. Of the fourteen players who made the team, three were YTS kids and two were first-year professionals - I'll make no comment on that, you all know what I'm going to say next anyway.

Man of the match? Mr J. P. Robinson of North Humberside, an official in his first, and hopefully last, season as a League referee. He dominated the game like a mad dictator and effectively ruined what was initially an enjoyable encounter. The utter incompetence shown in many of the decisions was one thing but I'd be very interested to see the free-kick count because it didn't seem to me that we were being treated at all fairly. By half-way through the second half, Watford fans' fury had reached the point where the entire away end launched into a massive chorus of "One day, we'll get a decent ref".

The first twenty minutes, before the referee stuck his oar in, were pretty entertaining. Walsall briefly looked threatening before the away side took charge and created enough chances to have won the game in the early stages. With Gary Penrice taking over corner duties, we're seeing some more effective set pieces - on this occasion, he hit an in-swinger right under the bar. The keeper, who looked a little nervous on crosses all afternoon, could only punch the ball a short distance and, in the ensuing scramble, Richard Johnson and Keith Millen both came close to forcing the ball over the line.

We were playing good football, Penrice again looking sharp and hungry and nearly playing Gifton Noel-Williams in with a beautifully flighted pass into the box. The only problem was that we didn't make our superiority count for anything - that all-important final ball just eluded us and the Walsall defence, whilst looking extremely fragile, managed to cope.

Ironically, we were just running out of ideas when we scored. Penrice hit an out-swinging corner onto the head of Millen at the far post and the downward nod across goal caused panic in the goalmouth.* Eventually, the ball was cleared and fell to Richard Johnson on the edge of the box - when it finally came down for him, he hit a powerful shot into a crowd of players. It took a vital deflection on the way to send it past the wrong-footed keeper.

As I said, though, we were starting to run out of ideas. The rest of the game belonged to Walsall and they equalised ten minutes later, Keister wriggling his way through the defence and firing a low shot past Kevin Miller.

The game's most significant incident occurred just a couple of minutes after the Walsall goal. A hopeful ball was played into the Walsall area and David Connolly competed for it with a defender - they got tangled up and both went down. It did appear to me that the defender was climbing on the striker (he certainly didn't dive) and we all appealed for the penalty - the referee took an age to make up his mind and then pointed to the spot. Unfortunately, having given the foul, he took no responsibility for what happened afterwards - the Walsall players surrounded him in protest, then attempted to encroach, leaving Connolly waiting for an eternity to take the kick. When the penalty was finally taken, Connolly sent the keeper the wrong way but dragged his shot wide of the post. The referee scampered back towards the half-way line (it was difficult to escape the impression that he regretted giving the spot-kick) and turned his back as Connolly was openly abused by at least two Walsall defenders.

That changed the whole complexion of the game. The referee had lost control and the players knew it. For the rest of the ninety minutes, the match was permanently on the brink of breaking out into a full-scale brawl - Connolly, in particular, was involved in a running battle that resulted from the penalty incident and ended up with a yellow card late in the second half as tempers flared up yet again. The problem for us was that, if there were to be any red cards shown, it was difficult to believe that the referee would have the guts to show one to a home player. In the end, we did remarkably well to avoid being drawn into too many confrontations.

Unfortunately, we just don't have a squad that's particularly well-equipped for such a physical game. Andy Hessenthaler or Derek Payne would've loved this, Gary Penrice and Stuart Slater just disappeared altogether. The result was that, although our defenders rolled their sleeves up and got stuck in, our attacking threat was virtually non-existent. The midfield was hurried into playing speculative balls forward that gave the two strikers little chance and we were constantly under pressure as a result.

The second half was hugely frustrating, mainly thanks to the referee. What remained of the good football we'd seen earlier was gradually destroyed by late tackles and absurd decisions. We managed just two meaningful efforts on goal - a mis-hit Johnson shot that span wide and a Slater free-kick that forced a good save from the keeper. Instead of imposing ourselves on the game, we were playing it at Walsall's pace and that meant a desperate lack of constructive passing. The front two were left stranded, the midfield was physically overwhelmed.

The left side became our biggest problem. Clint Easton, who'd had virtually no impact at all on the game, was replaced by Dominic Ludden but that didn't stop us looking painfully weak whenever we were attacked on that flank. Paul Robinson has done well in deputising for Ludden but he was out of his depth this time. On many occasions our defence was at full stretch to clear dangerous crosses and we looked more than a little shaky.

For all that, though, Walsall didn't do enough to win the game. They created a few chances but most of them were comfortably dealt with by Miller. They looked like scoring just once - Miller advanced from his goal, mis-hit his clearance under pressure and the resulting lob attempt was headed over the bar by Steve Palmer.

So the game ended with us booting the ball to safety and Walsall looking for a bit of inspiration. Despite the missed penalty (and a strong penalty appeal after Slater was brought down in the second half - but we certainly weren't going to get two decisions from the referee), a draw was probably the right result. It does us few favours, however - yet another point and yet another chance to make up ground on the leaders wasted. We have to start winning soon if we're to avoid mid-table anonymity.

*Actually, after seeing it on television, that wasn't what happened at all. The real sequence of events was that the keeper punched the ball away under challenge and then saved another shot before the ball broke out to Johnson.