Walker, Marsh, Pointon, Keates, Green, Roper, Wrack, Otta, (Brissett 87), Rammell, Larusson, Simpson
Walsall manager Ray Graydon won this battle of the Aston Villa Old Boys as his side moved into a share of the lead at the top of Division Two with a deserved success against former league leaders Stoke City. Stoke are managed by Graydon’s old Villa team-mate and friend Brian Little, but their friendship was pushed to one side for 90 minutes as Walsall knocked them off the top of the table. The game attracted the largest ever attendance for a match at Bescot and in an enthralling showdown, Walsall scored a priceless victory thanks to Andy Rammell’s first half goal
1-0 Walsall 41 mins Rammell
a brilliant diving header by Rammell from a cross by Pointon into the left-hand corner of the net
IT WAS fitting that on the day Walsall removed Stoke City from the top of the Second Division they should be watched by a record League crowd at their eight-year-old Bescot Stadium.
Just over 9,000 supporters turned up to see Ray Graydon’s side make it seven league games unbeaten, six of which have been won, to join Fulham at the top of the table.
Graydon, who has transformed the fortunes of the West Midlands club in the six months he has been in charge, feared that his team might slip up just as it appeared that the fans were finally returning to see if the days of struggling were over.
“Very often it goes wrong when you build people up and drag supporters back to watch you,” he said. “It is not a case of letting people down, but just human nature. Players are human beings not robots.”
As it turned out, Graydon need not have worried. Walsall won this emotional derby in the 41st minute with the help of some quality midfield play by Icelandic import Bjarni Larusson and Dean Keates, plus a crucial contribution from two old stagers.
Full-back Neil Pointon, now 34 after a distinguished career at Oldham, Manchester City, Everton and Hearts, played a captain’s role with a powerful run, a clever nutmeg of a defender, then a perfect cross which 31-year-old top-scorer Andy Rammell dived full length to head beyond Carl Muggleton.
That was Rammell’s 12th goal of the season, but later he heaped praise on his team-mates. “They worked their socks off, and the defence was brilliant,” he said.
The goal was only the second Stoke had conceded in eight games and City manager Brian Little could not remember when, or even if, his team had been off the top of the table this season. He said: “That is probably our first setback. Now it will be interesting to see how we handle it. I am disappointed because I felt the match had nil-nil written all over it.”
Little refused to blame the decision to play former Walsall striker Kyle Lightbourne, who had been ill with flu. He lasted only 21 minutes before having to be replaced by Dean Crowe.
WHILE David Platt attempts to prove to Sampdoria supporters that youth is no barrier to managerial success, another former Aston Villa player continues to state an eloquent case for those making a belated start in the profession.
The pressure may not be as intense for Ray Graydon in the West Midlands as it will be for Platt in western Italy, but the presence of Walsall in second place in the Nationwide League second division suggests that the 51-year-old has come of age after just half a season in management.
Graydon had spent so long as a coach that his summer move into what is increasingly a young man’s occupation came as something of a shock to Brian Little, his former attacking partner at Villa and now the Stoke City manager.
However, Little was not surprised on Saturday by a gritty display from Walsall that knocked his side off the top of the table, a position they had occupied for all but a couple of weeks of the season. “Walsall are well organised, they don’t give a lot away,” Little said. “They haven’t got to where they are just on luck.”
Indeed, the home side defended resolutely after Rammell headed his twelfth goal of the season just before half-time, the first that Stoke had conceded in five league games. Graydon said: “The players have worked hard to get into this position. It would be a shame if we didn’t go on to do something from now.”
The fact that Little and Graydon are both chasing promotion with Staffordshire clubs is apt, considering that their playing careers often progressed in tandem. They each scored 21 times in the 1974-75 season to help Villa back into the old first division and win the League Cup, a competition in which both scored in finals during that decade.
Just as Little was arguably the bigger name of the two on the pitch, he now has the bigger club in his charge. Nevertheless, he believes that Walsall, who were taken up from the third division three years ago by Chris Nicholl – yet another player to score a League Cup final goal for Villa in the 1970s – are capable of another promotion. “I would be a fool if I said they can’t go up,” Little declared.
Now will you believe it? Walsall have had a job convincing sceptics that they are serious about challenging for promotion to the First Division.
A cynical Walsall public have been astonishingly slow to recognise the scale of the achievement of Ray Graydon and the Bescot squad. Crowds have been depressingly low, often failing to top 4,000 – a pitiful response to a so-far excellent season.
If they needed to put themselves in the shop window, then this was the ideal opportunity and Saddlers grasped the moment in the best possible way.
Victory over a direct and pacy Stoke side means Walsall can celebrate Christmas firmly settled in second place, level on points with Mohamed Al Fayed’s millionaires at Fulham, and having just proved themselves to one of the biggest crowds ever to squeeze into Bescot Stadium.
And if that’s not an achievement for a side who were tipped by many for relegation, then I don’t know what is.
Graydon has built the promotion challenge on good organisation and a rigid 4-4-2 system which has given them victory in 14 of their 22 games so far.
So just how good is this Saddlers side and what are their chances of staying the promotion pace for the rest of the season?
Two or three astute signings have transformed Walsall from last season’s strugglers into this campaign’s bright sparks.
Neil Pointon, Andy Rammell and Richard Green all have the big game experience and bottle to take tense matches like Saturday’s in their stride.
Pointon was a classy performer, prompting constantly down the left and providing the cross for the only goal of the game. It was hardly surprising that the goal should be scored by Rammell, who has been something of a revelation since his arrival in the West Midlands.
Only the phenomenon of Lee Hughes down the road at the Hawthorns has prevented Rammell becoming the goalscoring story of the region.
When his header flew into the net four minutes before half-time, it was his 11th league goal from 17 appearances – an excellent ratio in anyone’s terms.
Rammell’s no-nonsense, traditional centre-forward style has been supplemented in recent weeks by Argentinian Walter Otta’s finer skills.
He has worked his way into Walsall hearts with three goals and some good performances, but the intensity of Saturday’s game passed him by a little.
The pace was fast and furious with Stoke determined to make their mark right from the start.
They put Walsall under pressure for the first 20 minutes, creating three or four decent chances, but faded after the departure of former Saddlers favourite Kyle Lightbourne.
The Bermudan was forced off because of the effects of flu and Stoke boss Brian Little later admitted he probably shouldn’t have put him in the side.
Lightbourne had contributed little, but once he was out of the way, Walsall grew in confidence.
Victory could easily have been by a wider margin as Walsall gook control during the second half.
Chris Marsh started to make regular breaks down the right and created a fistful of chances, which only some poor finishing by Rammell and Otta failed to convert.
It’s hard to escape the feeling that dinner at the Marsh house would consist of Indian starters, Chinese main course and Italian dessert – that’s how versatile he is.
He hates the ‘utility’ tag and longs to settle in one position, and right-back is starting to look as good a spot as any. His competant defending is complemented by some fine attacking qualities and Stoke found him increasingly hard to handle.
He, and the whole Saddlers team, deserved this win and if it does not convince the cynics, then nothing will.