Back on the right track
Report by Ian Grant
In a moment, the match report. Before all that, some things I've noticed this week...
1. Stella Artois is the Lager of Satan and His Vile Henchmen. Don't do it kids - it'll give you a hangover the size of Jupiter. "Reassuringly expensive"? Revoltingly full of nasty chemicals, more like.
2. Someone decided to set fire to a car outside my flat on Sunday night. It's difficult to sleep with a fire engine outside your bedroom window. So, kids, next time you undertake a bit of arson, do it at a reasonable hour, eh?
3. If you don't go to football on Saturday, you can stay in bed all day.
4. (Oh, get on with it, man - Ed)
Right, the match, then. Not something you'd particularly want to own on video to show your grandchildren but a gigantic step in the right direction nonetheless. The reason for this quick turnaround in fortunes? We're playing a sensible formation at last!
The return of Steve Palmer's steadying influence to the midfield ought to be cause for street parties throughout the land for a start. He is wasted in defence. Equally, bringing back Nigel Gibbs, a genuine full-back as opposed to one of these new-fangled wing-back wotsits, makes us look so much more solid. It also frees Darren Bazeley from most defensive duties, leaving him able to take up more advanced positions on the right wing without fear of being caught out. The same applies on the left - Dominic Ludden staked a fair claim to a place in the first half hour against Millwall and he should become a regular on recent evidence. In the middle of defence, Robert Page and Keith Millen look so much happier without Palmer and his fancy sweeping nonsense getting in the way.
Up front, we look more threatening, simply because the wingers are getting into good positions and we're giving them the ball. Tommy Mooney looks far happier than he has done so far this season; Bazeley, as I've said, is so much more dangerous when he doesn't have to worry about defending; even Gary Porter had a fine game in the creative midfield role. So, ladies and gentlemen, I give you 4-4-2 - it might not be modern but it sure as hell works.
All this shouldn't kid you into thinking that we gave a vintage performance or anything like that - we didn't and the quality of the opposition was somewhat dubious too. However, despite the occasional bouts of shapeless chaos, you could see what we were trying to do and you could see that it was working - that'll do for me, at least for the moment.
We really should have sewn the whole thing up before the break. It was probably the most encouraging 45 minutes of the season so far - a period of play in which we sustained pressure and created chances. It started within the first ten minutes, Devon White's flick looping up in the air towards Wayne Andrews who got an obvious nudge in the back as he went for the ball. Unfortunately, the dream start didn't quite come off - Mooney stepped up to take the penalty waving a large placard that said 'I am about to put this to your left, Mr Goalkeeper'. The kick was well saved but it was so obvious which way it was going.
Fortunately, we didn't let that discourage us. With Gibbs and Ludden pressing up to support their respective wingers, we were whipping crosses into the box from all angles and it was only a matter of time before chances started falling our way. The breakthrough came from the right - Gibbs curled a high ball into the area, White fell over but still managed to head it on towards Andrews. Wayne, in acres of space on the edge of the six yard box, kept his head, waited for the keeper to make the first move and slammed the ball into the net at the near post for his first senior goal. I think it would be fair to say that he was rather pleased.
For the rest of the half, we continued to play in the same positive way. We ran out of ideas a couple of times, taking a breather for long enough to let Walsall force Kevin Miller into a blocking save at his near post, but we created enough opportunities to have been three or four goals up by the break. That we didn't take those chances was, unfortunately, down to Big Dev. Bazeley was sticking some dream crosses in - from one of these, Dev had a chance at the near post but the ball just glanced off his forehead and went well wide. Late in the half, he had an even better chance - unmarked in the box, all he had to do was turn and get a shot in. Sadly, he executed the finish with all the grace of a stoned giraffe and the moment was lost.
The second half never lived up to the first. Sooner or later we'll learn to play for a whole ninety minutes and really murder someone. However, the game became rather shapeless and we lost some of our dominance as a result. That said, we still continued to open up the Walsall defence - the best occasion being when Andrews received the ball on the break, held it up superbly and played it through at the perfect moment to meet Palmer's surging run from midfield. Unfortunately, Wayne's pass was just a tad too strong and drove Palmer wide, forcing him to stretch for the shot and miss the target. Wayne also managed to supply Dev with his best chance of the match - a superbly flighted cross from the left wing that evaded the defence and left Dev with a clear header on goal. He seemed surprised that the ball had reached him and put the header wide, before turning and rightly applauding Andrews' efforts.
When it came, the goal was completely out of the blue. Nobody seemed to be paying much attention as the ball was out on the left. Suddenly, someone (I assume it was Mooney) flung in a cross to the far post and found Porter unmarked as one defender tried to mark two Watford players. And finally, after all these years, Gary Porter scored with an overhead kick - beautifully executed, straight into the bottom corner, keeper never stood a chance, just a shame that Derek Payne beat him to it really. Fine goal, anyway.
We did have a short period of unnecessary panicking as full time approached but it was nothing that a bit of solid defending couldn't sort out - and, Christ, I could've sworn that I saw Gary Porter making crucial defensive headers in the dying minutes. Nah, surely not. We managed to restrict Walsall to a few long range efforts that whistled over the bar or went straight at Miller - there was one header that they should have done better with but, again, it went straight into Kev's arms. For our part, Nathan Lowndes made a nuisance of himself after coming on for the knackered Andrews.
So, safely into the second round and a tie against Crystal Palace (the draw hasn't been made yet but it's written into FA rules that we have to play Palace at least twice a season). We'll play better sides than Walsall during the course of the season but that doesn't particularly matter - if we get the style of football right then we'll do okay against anyone we come up against. I firmly believe that the style we were playing last night was right, just as I firmly believed that the style we played against Plymouth was completely wrong.
Kenny Jackett's been going on about variety during the week and he's right. If you resolutely stick to the same tactic for ninety minutes, the opposition will learn how to deal with it. If you mix it up, they'll be in trouble. That's what we did last night - we played intelligent football, in that we looked for options and passed with purpose. The long ball to Dev is a part of that but, crucially, it's only a part, not the entire strategy. We looked a far, far better side.
Let's be patient. For God's sake, when they're passing it around the back four, playing square balls to each other, don't get impatient - it means they're thinking, looking for people to pass to. Rather that than the huge hump forward to Dev any day.
Finally, Wayne Andrews. A mighty performance. Somewhere along the line he's worked out that Second Division defenders don't like it up 'em and he's having a bloody field day. Every time he got the ball and ran at the Walsall back four, they looked absolutely terrified - he had a hand in most of our best moments. And there were many good moments last night.
Pressure them in their parts
Report by Dan Exeter
Luckily the Crewe result (a game I missed due to work commitments) was enough to persuade me that it
was worth coming for this game after all, as following Plymouth last week I was really tempted to save my
cash and not bother for some unspecified length of time. The fact that I could borrow a friend's dad's season
ticket and so only have to pay petrol was also pretty influential. It was my first time in the Rous stand since that
fateful game against Leicester, when I was nearly chucked out by my own supporters, never mind the
hordes of Leicester fans there, just because I was supporting my team. Anyway, that's a different story
from a different time, and to be honest I did look forward to the view, and what a view it was, just in line with
the halfway line below the TV gantry. In fact, the view was so good it was almost a pity about the football
that was going to be on view.
Whether through luck or our own choice, we attacked the Vic Road end in the first half. Being 1-0 down we needed
to get an early goal, so attacking that end made sense, although equally Walsall may have thought that we'd be more
dangerous in the second half when they'd start to get tired in the seething cauldron that is Vicarage Road. Well, never
mind the bollocks, whatever the reason, we were attacking the home end and in the end you could say it paid off as we
did ultimately win.
We played a nice and easy 4-4-2, with White and Andrews providing the lethality up front (oh yes), Ports and
Palmer the hard tackling and running in midfield (absolutely), Mooney and Bazeley the swift attacking wing play
and searching crosses into the box (certainly no doubt there) and Ludden, Page, Millen and Gibbs the rigid unbreakable
back four, with Miller the final plug in the watertight defence. (Into irony? Me?)
I'd like to suggest that it makes more sense for us to play 4-4-2 at this level; I think 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 or whatever is unnecessarily
complicated for Division Two, as it is virtues like hard work and consistency that will bring success, instead
of supporting strikers and wing backs. I'm not against different tactics per se, I just think they are an
extravagance for this standard of football. Of course, we then have problems like where to play Ramage and
Penrice and so on, but for the moment with the two unavailable I think KJ is right in sticking to what we know
and are thoroughly familiar with. What I would prefer, though, is if we'd play it on the ground more, as I just don't
think hitting it long to Big Dev all the time is always going to work. When they're fit, I'd like to see Connolly
and Phillips up front. Yes, I know they're too similar but they both score goals, they both have some good touches
and movement and if we were playing it on the ground then their lack of height would be less of a problem.
Sorry, I'm pretending to be a manager again. Anyway, the game. We got a penalty early on,
about ten minutes in, when Andrews was blatantly held back in the box. Super Tom stepped up to take it; I don't know
about you, but Mooney has never convinced me totally of his penalty taking ability. I suppose it was Alan Knight
getting so close last season to saving it. Anyway, he hit it hard enough, low to the left hand corner, but their keeper
pulled off a magnificent save to turn it round the post.
At first I thought we might seriously regret that miss but a few minutes later Big Dev physically cleared a path
in the area for Wayne Andrews to score into the top right hand corner. I thought it was a blatant foul by
White, indeed I think the whole Walsall team stopped expecting to hear the whistle, but the goal stood. We kept on
pressing through the first half for the winning second, but Walsall I thought defended well and kept their shape. They
certainly picked the right tactics, with four attackers pushed up on our back four, and they were perhaps a bit
unlucky to be one down at half-time.
The second half, alas, was abysmally poor. If we are going to win this division then it is spells like this when we'll have to
stamp our authority and start running the game, instead of being as mediocre as the opponents. For quite a spell (it felt like
that anyway) we couldn't get a pass right and Walsall's Kevin Wilson had a couple of good digs. It looked like Walsall would start
working their way back into the game, except we held out and won thanks to a quite amazing goal from Gary Porter. Mooney crossed
from the left, Big Dev missed the near post header (no surprise htere) and in the box was old Gary who scored a sumptuous overhead
kick almost into the right hand corner of the goal. Quite out of character with the quality of the rest of the game so far. The way the
game had been going I would never have expected that we'd score such a goal, especially from Gary Porter.
However, with Walsall needing only the one to put the tie into extra time (and inevitably penalties) (except they would've won on away goals - Pedantic Ed), the ending was
predictably tense. We didn't clear our lines enough, we didn't push out enough or pressure them in their parts of the pitch. Fortunately the
gods took pity on us and spared me the hell that would be extra time (I still haven't recovered from the England-Germany game).