Football: Rammell stoops to conquer

Walsall 1 Rammell 41 Stoke City 0 Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 9,056
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The Independent Online
IT WAS a day for the Sadlers to ride high, as a record league crowd at the Bescot Stadium saw Walsall go above their Midlands rivals in the Second Division promotion race. A highly-charged affair was settled by a spectacular diving header from Andy Rammell after 41 minutes, but the intensity of the contest rarely flagged before or after that decider.

Stoke, top of the table at kick-off, had the better of the early exchanges, but lost some of their attacking impetus when Kyle Lightbourne was forced off by a recurrence of flu after 20 minutes. Soon after that, Rammell, leading the attacking line with great vigour, could have put Walsall ahead, as he hit the top of the bar with a dipping volley from outside the area.

But there was no escape for Stoke when he struck minutes before half time. It was predictable that the telling move would come down the Walsall left, where the experienced pairing of Neil Pointon and Paul Simpson were posing all sorts of problems, and it was Pointon's clever touch and acceleration away from his opposite number, Kevin Keen, that produced the cross met so decisively by Rammell.

That goal put Walsall on top of the table at half time, a position that was ultimately denied to them by Fulham's late winner at Preston. But, on this showing, promotion rivals would be unwise to regard them as a little too humble and fashionable to go up.

They had their shaky moments in the second half, when the initiative seemed to be slipping away, but sheer hard work and enthusiasm saw them make the better chances, with Argentinian Walter Otta twice going close to putting it beyond doubt.

"It would have been nice to be top of the table, but it was still a fabulous, fabulous effort from the players," said Ray Graydon, a latecomer to management in his fifties, but one who is rapidly establishing his credentials.

Brian Little, Graydon's Stoke counterpart, acknowledged his old Aston Villa team-mate's influence, saying: "You can see it as soon as you play them. They are very well organised and they given nothing away. I'm disappointed, but it is the first real setback we've had this season. The test now is how we react."

Little had a warning for any promotion aspirants who imagine Walsall are in a false position. "They are where they are on merit," he insisted. "I'd be a fool to say they couldn't go up.