When Walsall were in the Championship I saw them play Derby, because of my brother’s curious attachment to the latter club (don’t ask). Walsall won that game, but lost that particular relegation battle. The following season we wanted to show our German exchange student a sample of English football, but Latics were playing away. Therefore we took him to see Huddersfield Town beat Paul Merson, and ten other blokes running aimlessly wearing Walsall shirts. He wasn’t impressed.
Meanwhile, pressures of exams and finances, before going to university in Birmingham, had meant that appearances at Boundary Park were kept to a minimum. Which made an away trip to Walsall strangely appealing.
Walsall are now stuck in another relegation battle, and hover in the League One relegation zone. Oldham, on the evidence of recent displays, aren’t sure if they want a playoff place or not, and were lying eighth at the start of the day. Walsall have also recently dispensed with manager Paul Merson. It sounds like a necessary move to make, but whenever I saw Walsall Merson was the only player who could pass the ball properly.
Mind you, in the opening stages, nobody could pass the ball properly. Like the rest of the match, it was low on quality with a great quantity of high balls by both sides. Oldham’s chief culprit was Guy Branston, and the on-loan goalkeeper Lee Grant. It seems a shame to single Grant out, however, as he gave a very assured display between the sticks, and often had little option but to hoof the ball downfield. I am sure the 3-5-2 formation works for Latics, but for heaven’s sake keep the ball on the ground some of the time! Only a Paul Warne shot, which flashed past Andy Oakes’ near post, can be called a chance. Oldham’s main “threat”, for want of a better word, was from free kicks, and even that threat was not consistent.
Thankfully, Walsall played with all the confidence of a managerless team who have not won in the League this year. Their strikers hesitated whenever they had a chance to shoot, allowing Latics defenders time to run back and cover the danger. Their most memorable effort was from about 30 yards out, which Lee Grant seemed to save in slow-motion.
After half-time things didn’t really alter too much. Only Paul Edwards seemed to want to run past defenders with the ball. On the other flank, Chris Taylor was quick and worked hard, but was unable to outmuscle Walsall players. He’s a damned good player for a nineteen year old playing his second senior match though. After about an hour, Oldham had the best chance of the game up to that point. Richard Butcher did very well to reach a Paul Warne cross on the volley, but did less well to strike it comfortably high and wide.
Athletic’s fortunes turned round remarkably quickly. After 72 minutes Paul Warne’s knock down reached Luke Beckett. He did marvellously to get past one Walsall defender, brilliantly to skip past Andy Oakes, and astonishingly to slot the ball past Pablo Mills on the goal-line. It was one of the few times Beckett had the ball at his feet all match, and shows why Ronnie Moore surely must play him every week. Two minutes afterwards Oldham scored again. A Walsall clearance from a free kick rocketed into Paul Warne and straight into the net.
Suddenly everything was so simple. Instead of shouting obscenities, Latics fans were singing jubilantly. Walsall never looked like scoring once, so twice was too much for the beleaguered outfit. Besides a free kick well tipped around the post by Lee Grant, and a blast over the bar by Mark Wright, no other chances fell Walsall’s way. This was despite the best efforts of Oldham’s defenders. After 80 minutes of defending solidly, the communication between goalkeeper and defenders suddenly fell apart twice. The first time a careless back-pass almost let in a Walsall striker, and then a breakdown of communication led to a corner. Not that it came to anything.
With the victory Oldham moved up one place to seventh, leapfrogging Chesterfield, who lost 3-4 to Southend, in an encounter which sounds slightly more entertaining than the one at the Bescot Stadium. The game was scrappy, and Oldham deserved the win for having the quality to convert the only serious chance of the game, and for the most outrageous piece of luck. I feel sorry for Walsall, and whoever their new manager may be, because they are in a mess.
As for Oldham, the defence was solid. Will Haining particularly impressed, as someone willing to throw himself in front of any ball or opposition player in Oldham’s third of the pitch. The attacking play can certainly be improved upon on this evidence, but against Nottingham Forest Latics proved they can score goals. Perhaps not quite good enough for a playoff place. But fingers crossed…