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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Walsall Preview

It was about a year ago now that someone lamented to me that he feared we would do a Leicester. Ever optimistic I couldn't understand his fear, but in the end he proved the better judge and we followed Leicester's example and plunged regardless into League One. But can we match Leicester's trick of climbing straight back at the first attempt, something that Man. City, Notts Forest, Wednesday and Leeds have all failed to do? Only time will tell but it took Leicester 4 games to hit the top spot last season and we could equal that on Saturday after our perfect 3 straight wins start in our 2-1 come-from-behind win over Orient, the first time we've done that since a 2-1 win over Plymouth on April 5th 2008 with two late Leeroy Lita goals.
All we have to do is dispose of Saturdays visitors Walsall who finished 13th last season with 7 away wins.
Manager for the Saddlers since 20th January this year is Chris Hutchings, best known as Paul Jewell's assistant whom he's helped out 3 times at Bradford City, Wigan and Derby County. Their first partnership was at Bradford City in the late 90's when Bradford were promoted to top flight football in 1999 for the first time in 77 years and together they managed a remarkable survival as Bradford finished their first season in the Premiership by amazingly beating Liverpool on the last day of the season.
Hutchings was then thrown into the deep end after Jewell suddenly left immediately afterwards in May 2000. Hutchings' CV, therefore, reads manager of Premiership Bradford but for only 3 months, for despite expensive signings, a bad start to the season saw them at 2nd to bottom in November and after just 1 win in 21 games Hutchings was sacked. Familar story.

But clearly Chris doesn't bear a grudge for the two of them then teamed up again at Wigan in the summer of 2001 and after winning promotion from Tier Three in 2003 they confounded the football world by winning promotion to the Premiership, and top flight football for the first time in their history, in 2005.

But it was deju vu time again as Jewell once again resigned after two successful years leaving Hutchings to again took charge in the summer of 2007. Alas the adage that lighting doesn't strike twice in the same place was proved wrong and almost 7 years to the day after being sacked by Bradford, Hutchings was sacked again after 6 successive defeats plunged Wigan into the relegation zone after just 12 games.

So after the heady days of the Premier, Hutchings now finds himself down in Tier Three and has figures of 9 wins 7 draws and 10 defeats from his 35 games in charge.


A tough old week for the Saddlers with their visit to London following a 2-1 home defeat against Leeds on Tuesday. Walsall are currently 10th in the table with 4 points. An opening day 1-0 win at Brighton by an own goal was followed by a 2-2 draw at home to Southend where the Saddlers equaliser came via the penalty spot in the last minute. And they also had an early League Cup exit to Accrington Stanley away which they took seriously using 7 of the same players that had beaten Brighton.

Whats Their Secret?
They may be midtable but, beware Parky, for the Saddlers have had a very good away record this year and have only lost 2 of their last 9 League fixtures away from home last season dating back to the beginning of February. And counting the win at Brighton on the opening day of this season that gives them 5 wins in those last 10 away League games.

The Saddlers, however, love shooting themselves in the foot after making good starts. Four games gone now and they have scored first in all of them but have only won once and lost twice. And to add to their generous nature, or perhaps the reason for it, they have had 2 sendings-off already. They were 1-0 in front in the League Cup at Accrington before captain Rhys Weston got himself a second yellow and they did it again last weekend when again leading 1-0 against Southend when Dwayne Mattis was sent off for a second bookable offence after an hour. A last minute penalty saved the day although that was after Lee Barnard levelled for Southend after home keeper Clayton Ince inexplicably threw the ball straight to him.

Who are Yeh?

Michael Ricketts, since transferred to John Barnes' Tranmere, and number 10 Troy Deeley were last seasons top scorers with 12 goal each. Deeley won Young player of the year last season and also got the goal of the season.

In goal will be 37 year old Trinidad and Tobago international goalkeeper Ince. At 6' 4" he's a commanding presence and set a club record of 22 clean sheets in 2006/07 and last season won the Player of the Year award. But after gifting the equaliser against Southend last weekend the fans debate continues regarding his Grobbelar-like abilities. Another giant, 6' 5" Rene Gilmartin waits in the wings.

In fact they are a team of giants with only Steve Jones and Troy Deeley less than a reported 6 feet. In midfield, assuming he's served his suspension against Leeds, will be the naughty number 8 Dwayne Mattis.

Of the 12 games played at the Valley, Walsall have won 4 of them, the last game being that embarrassing 1-2 3rd Round FA Cup defeat in January 2002 and it wasn't the first time that they have won at the Valley in the Cup, for 1987 also saw a cup exit at the Valley (oops, that was at Sainburys, of course) at the hands of the Saddlers. In League games at the Valley, its a bit more encouraging with 5 wins, 2 draws and 2 defeats and the last time we meet them at the Valley in the League was our Championship winning season 10 years ago when we won 2-1 on the 6th of November 1999 with goals by Hunt and Stuart after Walsall had gone in front. That was our 10th win of a wonderful season.

And overall its 9 wins, 4 draws and 5 defeats.

The Team
No injuries are reported so there seems no reason for Parky to make any changes to a winning team, unchanged now for all three League games and what a contrast with last season.

But are there any weaknesses? Our defence has experience, our 5 man midfield good techical ability and although we are playing with Burton alone up front our midfielders are scoring and we are 4th highest scorers in the League. But even if we were to play Norwich or Brighton tomorrow I can't see us getting 7 goals even with 3 strikers waiting on the bench. So our weakness is still a lack of goalscoring strikers and although we have some cover in midfield in Spring and youngster Stavrinou our central defence cover, if you ignore playing people out of position, consists of Yado Mambo.

But if you doubted Parky's ability to get them in the right frame of mind then Brisbane Rd should have put your mind at rest, particularly with his calming halftime talk. In fact, the only blip so far, for me anyway, has been the strange move to 4-4-2 against Wycombe by the intoduction of Gray and McLeod when leading 3-1, when with tiredness creeping in a new midfielder was needed to secure the points.

Elliot; Richardson, Dailly, Llera, Youga; Sam, Semedo, Racon, Shelvey, Bailey; Burton.

After three games against teams that have only won once between them in 9 starts, as spotted by johnny73, it clearly hasn't been the most difficult start to a season and we need another win over a mid-table side this weekend to give us headroom before the games really start getting difficult with Brentford (h), Southampton (h) and Norwich (a) on the horizon (OK, the last two shouldn't be too difficult), but then there's a very sticky October with difficult away games at front runners Colchester and Leeds and a local derby at Gillingham and before that a tricky home game with high scoring Huddersfield.

And as a pointer to the next two games, Leicester, in whose footsteps we carefully tread, only managed to take a single point from their corresponding fixtures last season against Walsall (h) and Tranmere (a).

So to reiterate, a win then on Saturday could see us go top as Colchester face a difficult trip to unbeaten MK Dons and providing Leeds don't overhaul our one goal advantage at home to Tranmere a win should see us at the top of the table. Verdict then....another 2-1 win with goals by Bailey and Racon.

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