Saturday, 6th March 2004
Like fellow correspondent East Stand Martin, my thoughts went back to Christmases past when someone would invariably receive a present of a board game called “Frustration”. This game was unremarkable in every way except for the fact that it appeared to be made from some sort of armour plated plastic, and for the device in the middle called the “pop-o-matic” dice shaker. This consisted of a pair of dice enclosed in a transparent plastic bubble that you'd shake by pressing the top of the bubble. This gimmick was the “Unique Selling Point” on which the game was advertised. Trouble was it made a very loud and irritating noise every time you used it and parents indulging in their post-turkey slumber would never be over happy with you playing it for long. Which was fine really as it was a rubbish game, must like yesterday's offering which was both frustrating and rubbish in equal parts.
The side showed one change from the midweek starting line-up with Nowland replacing the suspended Etherington. Walsall lined up with one proper striker and five across the middle, the aim being to deny our midfield the space and time to operate. This is not a tactic that should be new to us – many teams over the last couple of seasons have employed such a game plan. However, we managed to somehow forget all the lessons of the past as Walsall worked their collective backsides off.
Like the aforementioned board game of yuletides past the first half was almost totally unremarkable save for two incidents. On 16 minutes we had the ball in the net. A Harewood cross from the right was converted by the otherwise quiet Zamora only for the goal to be ruled out by the linesman's flag. Shortly after this we saw the departure of Mullins, who it was later confirmed was suffering from a back spasm. Mullins was replaced by Melville in a move that saw Repka move over to the right back spot vacated by Mullins. That was it really – I vaguely recall a long shot from Walsall being turned unconvincingly around the post by Bywater and Repka putting a good block in but the rest of the half was as flat as a pancake.
AP tried to change things around at half time. The largely anonymous Nowland was replaced by McAnuff whose job was to add some much-needed width to the midfield. Things looked more promising in the second period as we started to press Walsall back. Melville had a header from Harewood's cross easily saved by Walker in the Walsall goal. Up the other end a Walsall break led to Leitao heading just wide of the far post and I wasn't convinced that Bywater's dive would have been enough had the header been just the other side of the post.
We had the bulk of the possession and started to create more chances. A Connolly shot from distance produced a fine save from Walker. A Harewood run through the middle brought out another save whilst the best move of the match saw a sublime Connolly dummy finding Repka wide on the right. Repka's angled pass into the box however, sadly eluded Connolly in the box. With 10 minutes left Connolly was replaced by Deane - an act that was every bit as desperate as it sounds. However, despite a generous four minutes of stoppage time, we rarely looked like breaking through and the game petered out into a tame draw.
Tellingly, the biggest cheer of the afternoon came when the crowd was announced – not so much for the fact that over 33,000 had turned up, but more for the secondary announcement that of that crowd a mere 400 or so had made the trip down from the West Midlands. The Walsall team had defended and closed down as if ten times that number had travelled. Other teams will come with the same ideas and tactics and, if they are as hard-working and as well-organised as Walsall were we'll need everyone to stop having off-days all at the same time. The game was notable for a lack of creativity and guile on our part and, in attending a birthday party at the club later in the evening (Happy Birthday Margot!) at which the 101 goals video was playing in the background, I saw numerous examples from the likes of Brooking & Devonshire of precisely what we'd been missing over the 90 minutes, namely that one bit of genius, inspiration, call it what you will, that can unlock a stubborn defence and produce a win out of nothing. Why does the name Paolo DiCanio leap to mind?!
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Had little to do except for one save in the first half. However, I don't know what he's been doing in training but his kicking, which looked so reliable in his early games this season, seems to have have gone to pieces.
Hardly troubled by a Walsall side for whom attacking was hardly a priority. Pushed on in the second half but didn't add much to the attack.
Started at right back and had a shot blocked in the first half before going off with back problems.
Despite only having one forward to contend with looked a bit shaky on occasion and was guilty several times of hitting panicky clearances into touch when perhaps he had the time and space to find a colleague.
Moved over to right back following Mullins' early departure. Not overly tested defensively and, whilst he got into some good positions going forward, he appeared to lack much idea of what to do once he'd crossed the halfway line and his distribution sometimes left a lot to be desired.
Lacked presence in the first half and was too often guilty of choosing the wrong pass in the second. Seemed strangely reluctant to shoot on occasion.
Tried his utmost to make something happen but without back-up from his colleagues was often on a hiding to nothing.
Ran about a lot but seemed to suffer from playing in that strange neither midfield nor forward role.
Made no real contribution to the first half and was replaced by McAnuff for the second.
Starved of service from the midfield he lacked the presence to make things happen himself.
Hard-working but ineffective. He seems to have lost his spark in recent weeks.
(Replaced Mullins, 29) Came in for Mullins and looked ok in the centre, although was hardly given a hard time. Might add something up front for corners if Mullins injury gets him a run in the side.
(Replaced Nowland, 45) Showed some nice touches wide on the right.
(Replaced Connolly, 81) On for the last 10 minutes but his presence meant that we resorted to humping it long to him, a tactic that the Walsall defence had few problems in dealing with.
Did not play.
Did not play.
Man of the Match: Michael Carrick.
West Ham United
Booked: None booked. .
Sent Off: None sent off. .
Walker, Bazeley, Roper, Aranalde, Matias, Samways, Taylor, Emblen, Osborn, Leitao, Birch.
Substitutes: Fryatt (Birch 69), Wales (Samways 78).
Subs not used: Pettersen, Caines, Bennett.
Booked: None booked..
Sent Off: None sent off..