Walsall decided to ring down the curtain on 2004 with a performance as disappointing as many during the course of the year. Merson decided to make changes, resting Kinsella and bringing in Osborn in his place and Bennett returning following his suspension. The on loan Paul McShane moved to right back and Mark Wright to the bench.
The first half of this game was a reasonably good advert for the Division, with two teams looking to play football. Walsall certainly shaded the half, with Standing going close and several other half chances, but Tranmere too were always looking dangerous, with both their wing backs finding acres of space against the narrow Walsall midfield. Wrack and Standing were curiously ineffective and Osborn was certainly the pick of the midfield. (Osborn haters to note, it was 30 minutes before he wasted a pass). What turned out to be the defining moment of the game, however, came late on in the half when Osborn superbly found Leitao who was unceremoniously brought down from behind by the Tranmere defender, Sharps, on the edge of the box. The referee bottled the decision and we got neither the foul, nor the automatic red card. Merson was promptly booked for his protests. Not long afterwards, Osborn again picked out a player with a superb through ball, but Merson’s cushioned volley floated wide, when he should possibly have done better.
It was obvious at half time that changes were needed, as Tranmere’s 3 5 2 formation had been giving us trouble all through the half, with both full backs struggling to cope. The Tranmere wing backs were getting all the space they needed to cause damage. No changes came, however.
As the second half progressed, Tranmere started to get a greater and greater measure of control over the game and Walsall became more and more ineffective. They rarely threatened to score howver, despite Bennett dropping one dreadful clanger, with McShane rescuing him with a wonderful tackle. Aranalde on the other flank, was finding it harder and harder to cope with the wing back running into space and it seemed that the pressure would tell eventually. The surprise was, however, was that it came form an attack down the Saddlers’ right flank. McShane put in another tremendous block, but jarred his knee in the process. While he was on the ground, it appeared the whole team switched off and the ball broke to Mcateer, whose twenty yard speculative shot found the back of the net with Murphy looking a little flat footed.
Walsall almost got straight back into the game, when Jorge Leitao hit the post from the edge of the box with one superb effort, but the team seemed to subside into a strange kind of lethargy and eventually the impressive Ryan Taylor, the right wing back, skinned Aranalde and hit a speculative bobbling shot which some how crept through Murphy’s grasp and into the corner.
Altogether, this was one game well worth forgetting, with only Osborn, easily the pick of the midfield, Bennett, McShane and sponsor’s Man of the Match Emblen coming out with any credit. Wrack was dreadful, Aranalde worse and Standing and Merson completely ineffective.