Around 1,500 Jacks travelled up the M5 to Walsall yesterday morning hoping that a side still depleated through injuries and suspensions could end our worst run since Jackett first arrived at the club. We were without star-striker Lee Trundle, who is still suffering from a hamstring injury, and possibly a transfer to a championship club too. Garry Monk and Adrian Forbes also missed out through injury, and Kris O’Leary and Ijah Anderson through suspension. There was some good news though, as Andy Robinson returned from the suspension that started in 1996, and Izzy Iriekpen and Kevin Austin returned to the heart of the defence following suspension and injury respectively.
Walsall started the day in third after two wins and two draws from their opening two games, and they had a full squad to choose from as they hoped to extend their unbeaten record that stretched back to last March. It was also heavily rumoured that striker Matt Fryatt was playing his last game at the Bescot Stadium before moving to the Premiership.
Attacking the surrealy quiet Walsall fans in the first half the Swans ground out the first chance of the game with five minutes gone, McLeod found space just outside the area, but Oakes was equal to his low drive. Walsall though were looking dangerous going forward, with winger George Leitao providing the ammunition for Fryatt and striker partner Wright, who linked well together, and were unlucky not to find themselves ahead with 10 minutes gone when Wright’s shot hit Fryatt and bounced just wide.
Back up the other end Paul Connor chased a seemingly hopeless long ball into the corner, got there just before the defender and layed off to McLeod. He teed up Martinez, and from 25-yards out his deflected curler gave Andy Oakes no chance, as the Spaniard scored his first goal since February 2003, and against his old club too. Britton was looking lively on the right, and shortly after the goal his excellent pass found Connor in space, but he was forced wide by Westwood, and could only hit a weak shot with his left foot straight at Oakes.
The game was swinging both ways as both sides looked to pass the ball well and get numbers forward, and Walsall should have been level almost immediately, as Leitao got the better of Ricketts and swung a dangerous ball across the face of goal that Wright and Fryatt both just failed to connect to. The home side though were awarded a penalty on the half hour when Fryatt spun away from Iriekpen in the box before having his legs taken away by the defender when he was about to shoot. Despite the jeering from the away end and Gueret’s impressive penalty record, Fryatt stepped up to send Gueret the wrong way and to level the scores.
Britton nearly gave us the lead once again soon after, Connor and Akinfenwa combined well to capitalize on a mistake by Smith, but Leon choose to go for the near post rather than across goal, and his shot curled wide. And in stoppage time Leitao again got the better of Ricketts before crossing into the box, where Chris Westwood’s powerful header beat Gueret only to come back off the bar.
The talk at half time was of a decent performance going forward, but the defence was struggling to cope with Leitao and Fryatt in particular, and that although we deserved to be level at the interval, we didn’t really have the firepower up front without Trundle to out-score them.
Well whatever it was that Jackett said or gave to the players at half time, he should do more often. Within a minute of the restart Andy Oakes had to scramble off his line to take he ball off the feet of the advancing Akinfenwa after a good ball through by McLeod. Within three minutes of the restart ex-Ireland international Steve Staunton was disposessed by the excellent Tate, who stormed forward past the static Walsall midfield and fed Connor down the wing. He didn’t hesitate and pulled back an excellent cross which landed right on Akinfenwa’s right boot two yards from goal, despite there being four red shirts and a keeper between them, to restore our lead.
It didn’t last long though, as Walsall were again level some seven minutes later, with one of the more bizzare goals I’ve ever seen. Under no pressure Ricketts headed the ball back towards Gueret, but the ball went over the Frenchman’s head. He scrambled back to retreive it and caught the ball about three yards out of his goal, before Leitao ran into him from behind and bundled him into the net. With everyone (Walsall fans and players included) expecting a free kick the referee, to everyone’s surprise gave the goal.
So back at 2-2 and with the away end signing ‘we always get poo refs’, it looked like we’d squandered our chance of taking all three points – after all, we hadn’t scored more than twice away from home since last January. But instead of their heads dropping the players responded magnificantly. Within ten minutes we were in the lead again. Adebayo Akinfenwa showing some great control before warding off two defenders and flicking the ball over his head straight into the path of Tudor-Jones. It looked like he’d taken the ball too wide and would have to cross for Connor, but he composed himself before drilling the ball past Oakes into the bottom corner to restore our lead.
Walsall’s midfield seemed to give way completely, and almost immediately from the kick off McLeod burst forward from the left, exchanging passes with Britton before outwitting Staunton, leaving him one-on-one with the keeper. His shot was blocked but for once we received some good fortune as the ball bounced off McLeod’s chest and rolled into the empty net for 4-2.
By now many of the home fans had seen enough, and were leaving despite there being over 20 minutes to play. But there was yet more to come from the Swans, who looked like scoring every time they passed the half way line. Martinez and Tudor-Jones got control of the midfield, while Britton and McLeod were getting forward well and creating numerous chances for the front two. So it came as no surprise when number five arrived some five minutes after the fourth. Britton and McLeod again combining, this time down the left flank. McLeod could have fed Akinfenwa but looked up and saw Connor unmarked on the opposite side of the pitch. His cross was inch-perfect, and Connor easily slid the ball under the advancing Oakes for a very well deserved first of the season.
By now even the Walsall players had seemingly given up, with many of them walking and jogging and wishing they were already in the changing rooms again. Britton wasn’t finished though, and he wanted to become our sixth scorer of the day, and nearly did when his persistance earned him the ball inside the box after a sloppy back-pass from Staunton. He turned Westwood with ease, and his goalbound shot had Oakes beaten, but Pead got his head in the way and was able to clear for a corner.
With the game already won Christian Edwards was given a 15-minute run out in place of Austin, and then came the return of Andy Robinson after his seven match suspension to replace McLeod, who was again suffering with cramp. Shaun MacDonnald also came on in the dying stages for Akinfenwa, as we kept the ball well for the final few minutes.
So 5-2 to the final score, our biggest win since boxing day, and some good revenge on a Walsall side that tonked us 5-1 on our last visit to the Bescot back in 2000-01. The difference today was our midfield. All four had excellent games, particularly Leon Britton, who looked back to his sublime best yesterday, and Martinez, who for the first time in about a year decided to get forward and have a crack. McLeod played some stunning passes and Tudor-Jones filled O’Leary’s boots very well. Our finishing, also, was excellent. We didn’t create a shed-load of chances, but we made sure we finished off the ones we did create, something we were guilty of not doing on too many occasions last year.
Walsall’s midfield was poor and didn’t track back at all, but they weren’t undefeated in 11 games and third in the table for nothing. Playing like that, we’ll give anyone in this division a run for their money.