The Bescot Stadium
Walsall came through an extremely stern test as the Bulls arrived at Bescot claiming they were going to win their local derby (local derby ?). That brought what must be considered for League Two a large contingent and a side that was determinded not to give anything away and try and grab a goal on the break. But if there is something Richard Money's side do possess it's determination and as our rivals stumble towards the finishing line, Walsall sprint on hoping to take top honors.
Hereford United came in this game having drawn with high flying MK Dons and Swindon and having gone a long way to helping the Saddlers promotion challenge recently. Walsall started the match with three changes to the side who had performed so expertly at Plainmoor on saturday. Mark Wright came in for Darren Wrack, Kris Taylor dropped to the bench with Kevin Harper coming in on the left and the much hyped Mannie Smith arrived with aplomb into centre half for Craig Pead, with Chris Westwood going to right back. Tim Stills the tentpole forward for Hereford was missing after being sent off against Swindon and they lacked an aerial threat replacement.
Both sides started brightly and it was clear that Hereford were keen to impress their enthusiatic following. They played on the break and poured numbers forward when they got set-pieces. Straight away Hereford won the midfield battle with their Captain Smith expertly controlling the flow of the game and spreading play well. Dobson and Keates struggled to get their hands onto the game, Dobson seemed concerned by Mannie's positioning in the early moments and tried to form a protective band around the rookie. But in doing so he gave away time and pressure away to the cultured Hereford midfielders. Thomas on the left side of defence was extremely impressive for the Bulls, not only was he up and down his own flank but appeared in centre midfield and defence as if he was a one man show of athletic prowess. Both sides threatened as both experienced periods of possession and attacking potency. Hereford failed to pick the right pass in the final third and Walsall failed to penetrate a Bull's defence heavy in numbers. As the half came to an end it was United who finished the strongest and the half time whistle came as relief, Ince made one exceptional save turning it around the post and got a goal kick for his efforts as well.
Expecting boo's for their impotent attacking threat, the Saddlers were cheered and clapped off. Those times have gone now and the Saddlers team have built up a level of trust that they're not going to let people down after recent results. The boo's were left for Radio WM presenter Tony Butler who came stomping on the pitch as if he was a hero but was heckled as the pantomine caricature he really is. The much maligned Butler has been a constant critic of chairman Jeff Bonser and the playing staff and supporters of the club. Half time and MK Dons were winning and so were Swindon with the apparent mighty Pool drawing with Acrington Stanley. The first half must be noted for a pleasing performance from the Referee who allowed the game to flow and did well, working against this his one assistant referee did drop a couple of offside howlers.
Walsall started sharply as the second half got away and Hereford set up to attack quickly on the break. Keates stepped forward as the true leader of the Saddlers as he went all out to give Walsall the impetus for victory. Mark Wright who had been abysmal in the first half, continued processing his transfer to Kidderminster Harriers with more poor touches and decision-making, that left supporters wondering if Tony Bedeau really is that bad after all? He was soon replaced by Darren Wrack and Kevin Harper who took Wright's place on the right wing. Walsall pushed forward in patience in search of the goal that would win the game. But it was clear to see how Hereford had taken points of the Dons and Swindow as they were well disciplined, effcient and pacey at the back, goalkeeper Steve Brown was a calming influence as the last line of defence.
Kevin Harper took the ball on the half way line and took on the whole of the Hereford defence only to run out of gusto in the penalty area and fall down. There was a nonserious claim for a penalty but the Referee believed the Hereford defender got the ball even though he didn't touch it. Next Harper threatened again and with clever link up play with Keates and Butler he arrived one on one with Brown at an acute angle. Harper played it across the goal but Benjamin was ball watching and when he realised the ball was there to be poked home he couldn't stretch far enough to make a relevant touch. Hereford breathed a hugh sigh of relief and this seemed to be the turning point of the match. As the minutes and seconds closed down the turning point arrived. The ball was played forward and Beckwith got the wrongside Benjamin, both players scrambled to take control of the ball and it broke free to Brown who picked up. The Referee blowed much to the surprise of everyone in the ground, many were expecting a free kick to the defender but the Ref pointed for a Walsall free kick. Hereford players crowded the Referee in disdain and the Ref waddled around back and forth, trying to keep Beckwith in his sights and manage to get his card out of his back pocket. When it did it was a red, Beckwith was the last man, he eventually left. Fox, Harper and Keates deliberated on the best course of action and when it finally came Keates floated a harmless free kick over the bar. Hereford took to time wasting but soon the deadlock was broken. The ball broke loose on the edge of the area and Darren Wrack fired a low powerful drive that was parried away by Brown. Benjamin couldn't stretch to the loose ball but Keates took control and fired low into the net, to the relief of the home supporters.
Afterwards Walsall looked comfortable, as they formed two solid blocks to protect Ince's goal. Sam came on for Benjamin and Kris Taylor came on for the tired Harper. It was disappointing in the aspect that Walsall couldn't stretch the game and find more goals, instead they were happy to thump the ball down field into Brown's hands and giving possession away. But this is a time of points and not resounding results so it didn't matter. The final whistle blew, Hartlepool and Swindon won but the MK Franchise lost at Shrewsburg meaning that Walsall were one win away from gaining promotion to League One.
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