Let's just say it was a bad hair day all round

Cod Almighty | Match Report

by Tony Butcher

19 January 2022

A very bright, very clear, very cold day in the beautiful shed that is the Bescot Stadium. It is exactly like Scunthorpe's ground, except the seats are red. The pitch looked like it would cut up quite easily. And it did. As Walsall were playing in red shirts Town, of course, played in the blue hooped monstrosity. The players were led on to the pitch by the Walsall Mascot – a pretty ropey-looking bird costume. It resembled a badly constructed fat Emu. As it had the word Swifty blazoned across the back I suspect it was supposed to be that native British bird, the swift. A man (or woman) dressed as a saddle would have looked even more stupid.

Town lined up in the usual 4-4-2 formation as follows: Coyne, McDermott, Gallimore, Lever, Livingstone, Donovan, Coldicott, Groves, Black, Clare and Nicholls. The substitutes were Croudson, Butterfield, Chapman. A Buckley and Pouton. Gallimore returned at left-back looking sleek and slender(ish), with the fearsome twosome of Clare and Nicholls again up front.

Walsall were a motley collection of shockingly haired foreigners and British cast offs. I half expected the referee to book two of their players for outrageous hair – slick backed into a bunch (Vlachos) and like some kind of Inca (the long-haired and head-banded Padula). They could have had someone's eye out with a flick of their coiffeurs. Walsall played 4-4-2 as well with Wrack on their right, and a little man/big man routine up front (Ricketts and Robins).

1st half
Walsall kicked off towards the 200 or so Town supporters (who were congregated behind the goal on the right as seen on TV) and nothing happened at all for five minutes. The ball was kicked between various players and various ball boys for a series of throw-ins. After about five or six minutes Walsall had a shot from outside the area, following a half cleared corner, which was deflected five yards over the bar.

For the next 20 minutes Town took control of the game, especially in midfield. Town started this period with a couple of moves which broke down through Nicholls being offside. On one occasion he continued play and finished terribly, slicing five yards wide with only the keeper to beat. After 15 or 20-ish minutes Town exerted some pressure which nearly brought a goal.

It all started when a Walsall attack was broken up by a bizarre Livvo interception. He smashed a clearance low across the face of the Town area, fortunately straight to Groves who half controlled/prodded it to Coldicott. The ball was moved at full Town pace (i.e. leisurely) up the middle and left to the edge of the Walsall area. Town retained possession on the left, between Clare, Coldicott, Black and Gallimore and the ball was eventually crossed over to Donovan, who, about 10 yards out, cut in across the full-back. Unfortunately, his touch was a little heavy and the ball ran through to the keeper.

Within a couple of minutes Town had another attack which resulted in Nicholls drifting off the centre-backs and playing a reverse pass between centre-back and left-back. Donovan ran on to the ball and, from about 12 yards out and eight or nine to the right of goal, dragged a shot across the keeper. It hit the keeper's right-hand post and bounced out towards Black. He missed the ball and kicked the Walsall defender, resulting in a free kick to them.

A few minutes after that, Donovan lashed in a cross from near the right corner flag to Groves, on the edge of the area, centrally placed. Groves hit a swivelling hooked volley high, but straight at the keeper, who pushed it over for another corner. And after that Town did not threaten any more in the first half.

Walsall had a breakaway after about 25/30 minutes, down the Town left. Gallimore and Black were slow to react to a one-two, which left a midfielder (Matias) free near the bye-line, just inside the area. He crossed to the near post, about eight yards out. Coyne dived towards the ball but missed, as Ricketts did a low, leaning back header which looped towards the net. Fortunately Lever was running back and the ball got stuck between his legs as he turned around, and it was whacked away for a throw-in. Inelegant, maybe inadvertent, but effective. Hey, that's Lever.

A few minutes later the flow of the game seemed to change after another rubbish decision by the referee who kept falling for Walsall's falling. An intense stare was enough to make some of their players to fall over. Ricketts attempted to run between Black and Lever, about 20 yards out slightly to the left of the Town goal. He kicked it too hard and with the ball running away and being cleared, he decided to fail to stop himself falling over an invisible foot. The resultant free kick was hit firmly, but centrally, and Coyne pushed it over easily for a corner. After this Town never produced any flowing football, or even control over the game.

Five or six minutes from half time Walsall counter-attacked down the centre right. Gallimore came across to cover the centre-backs as a Walsall player advanced, leaving acres of space on the Town left. Black was very slow to track back, and even slower to react to a stroll forward by Matias. The ball was eventually rolled over to Matias, who had loads of time to wander forward and cross to the unmarked Robins, about 10 yards out, just to the left of the penalty spot. Robins firmly headed the ball just inside Coyne's left-hand post. Despite getting a hand to it, Coyne couldn't stop it going in. Coyne was actually moving to his right as Robins redirected the ball to his left, so it was a clever header. Darren Wrack endeared himself to the Town crowd by running in to the goal, picking the ball up and moving towards the advertising boards, gesturing with his right hand. I think a couple of Town fans complained to the stewards about this.

Walsall got a bit excited and pressured Town a bit more after the goal, but no more efforts on goal resulted, just more vigorous thrusts from their forwards, together with some more theatrical falls which kept producing free kicks.

And so half time came to pass with a feeling that it should have been 0-0, but there was a certain inevitability about the score-line. Town just did not look like scoring. They had played a lot better than last week against Palace, especially in that 15-20 minute period in the middle of the half, but there was no conviction in the forwards.

Nicholls spent his time either drifting offside (not so much hanging on the defender's shoulder as the goalkeeper's), or drifting off the centre-backs into the famous Kingsley hole. With even less effect. He barely rose above a trot and was easily shrugged away from the ball by the defenders. Yet again he did a passable impression of a disinterested Ashcroft. A couple of flicks and one excellent pass aside, he had done nothing. In the last 10 minutes or so Town reverted to high balls to Clare and Nicholls (who were both several inches smaller, and a stone or so lighter, than their markers). You may be surprised to hear that this was not very successful.

Groves and Coldicott had been effective for half the half, but Groves was slow and loose in his passing as the half continued, allowing Walsall more opportunity to break through the centre. The defence had been generally okay, with the exception of the usual Lever/Livvo flutters. The evidence of the last couple of games suggests that we should be waiting for that "Livvo moment", rather than Lever. At one point Livvo cleared a through ball with a wild swipe which ballooned the ball in an arc across the back line. Luckily it went straight to McDermott. One could say that even Livvo's mistakes are perfect.

The heads were down at half time as no-one could see where a goal would come from.

2nd half
The half-time entertainment was a group of Walsall and Grimsby kids taking it turns to run from the halfway line and shoot. Needless to say the Grimsby kids were hopeless at shooting, despite having a midget keeper to beat. Only a couple of them (one of them a girl) had the nous to chip the keeper. At the other end the Town keeper let everything in, seemingly determined to keep his kit clean. Two of the Walsall kids were so small the ball came up above their knees.

The professional game? It was very poor for 40 minutes, with not many efforts of any note towards either goal. I recall a Walsall breakaway resulting in a shot from the left edge of the Town area. The ball was not hit very hard, and was straight at Coyne. Coyne managed to drop the ball over his head, turn round, knock it between his legs and eventually fall on it. It was like having Alf Ippititimus in goal (anyone under 40 ask your parents). Lever also produced an excellent sliding tackle in the penalty box to dispossess Ricketts as he was about to shoot.

After about 55ish minutes Town produced a fine move, starting in their own half on the left and ending with the ball with McDermott, just inside the Walsall half. He surged forward, in a sort of inside-right channel and played a one-two with Nicholls, got to the edge of the area and whacked in a low shot, slightly across the keeper. The shot was blocked by the keeper and rebounded between three Town players, straight to a Walsall defender, who cleared. This moment rather summed up Town's day. Fleeting moments of decent football, but the ball never really ran to them. The rebounds, challenges and decisions all seemed to go Walsall's way. Small things, but they all added up to frustration and a sense that Town weren't going to get a bit of luck.

On 60 minutes Nicholls was replaced by Pouton, who went to right-wing, with Donovan at centre-forward. This had no tangible effect whatsoever apart from a penalty appeal 15 minutes from time. A Town break down the left saw the ball run to Donovan down the centre. He eventually rolled the ball out wide to Pouton. Pouton curled in a cross, from near the bye line, and Matias raised his arm and knocked the ball into the Town supporters with a forearm smash. At least the referee was consistent in favouring Walsall.

With about 10 minutes left McDermott was replaced by Butterfield and Black by A Buckley. Groves went to centre-forward, Donovan right-wing, and Pouton to centre-midfield. Town played the ball a little more directly, but no chances. With five minutes to go Livvo went to centre-forward as well, with Town almost playing a 3-2-5 formation. Now the game did, finally, get a bit exciting.

Town effectively went route one, with Livvo flicking on for Groves and Clare. Within a minute or so of the switch to all-out attack Livvo had headed on a high ball to a position 12 yards out, just to the right of goal. Groves ran on, controlled it on his chest a whacked a bicycle kick a coupe of yards over. Well, it looked exciting to the frozen fans huddled miserably behind that goal. A couple of minutes later Coldicott dragged a shot wide from near the penalty spot after a corner fell loose to him. This was about the only decision to go Town's way as the referee gave a corner despite it clearly missing everyone and everything. The corner only produced a chance for Walsall as it was cleared and they ran off towards Coyne and had a shot that went a yard over the bar.

As well as the Town pressure in the last 10 minutes, Walsall had three of four opportunities. Bukran smashed a swinging drive from 20 yards about a foot over the bar, Robins glanced a header very wide, and a header was cleared off the line following a corner on their left.

The game ended with a shrug from the Town support. It was just one of those days. It had narrow defeat written all over it from the first minute. It was annoying because Walsall are merely a good second division side, as Town showed in the first part of the first half. However the paucity of strength and nous up front is most debilitating. The rest of the team wasn't that bad.

The defence coped relatively well, with Coyne being forced to make only three or four saves all game. Nicholls hasn't shown anything yet (apart from a Lester-esqe capacity to fall). He looks like he wants to play off the forwards and act as a playmaker a la Totti. He has the same hairstyle, but nothing else. Clare didn't have a shot unless you count his drop kick which hit the referee on his backside and earned a talking to. It was definitely intended and his most accurate shot/pass for several weeks. He was largely an irrelevance. He ran around a lot, but to no effect.

It was largely shapeless, mundane stuff. Very forgettable but, strangely, better than the performance against Palace. This game should have been a draw, probably 0-0. But then again last week's should have been as well. So Town are a point up on the deal. How's that for straw clutching.