Football: Walsall worthy of the big occasion
Monday 21 December 1998
ONE OF the persistent complaints against new grounds, particularly those belonging to clubs that do not regularly draw big crowds, is that they have no soul or atmosphere.
The Bescot Stadium, Walsall's functional home for eight years, looks as much like a B&Q extension as any, but, as unprecedented numbers rallied there to watch the Saddlers in this Second Division promotion game, one thing it did not lack was a sense of occasion.
Walsall and their neighbours from up the M6 approach a match like this from opposite directions. Like their manager, Brian Little, Stoke have seen bigger days and grander stages. For Walsall, a few Cup adventures aside, this is as good as it gets.
Stoke remain a big club in hibernation; Walsall were excited and delighted by a crowd of 9,056 - a record for the club at Bescot.
The hope expressed by their manager, Ray Graydon, was that most of the newcomers would be back to boost the club's modest average. "The fans would go away and say that was good entertainment," he said. "In fact, if any of them aren't satisfied, I'll give them some money out of my own pocket. The players responded to what they got from the crowd."
Walsall certainly had the look of a side that gives value for money, working tirelessly and with no little skill to deservedly edge out opposition who have far greater resources on tap.
Graydon's own investments have proved sound, particularly the enlistment of the strikers, Walter Otta and Andy Rammell. The flair of the Argentinian has been a revelation in the Second Division, although Saturday was a day more for the direct approach of the former Barnsley man, who dived to head the winner and proved a handful throughout.
There is quality elsewhere in the side, with Neil Pointon and Paul Simpson a pair of sprightly veterans down the left flank.
"We've got to make sure that we don't get carried away," said Graydon, who played in the Aston Villa forward line alongside Little. "Stoke put us under terrific pressure, played some good football and, if I were Brian, I'd be disappointed not to come away from the match with something."
Stoke did indeed look a smooth and classy outfit, with no end of midfield craft at their disposal. But their striking options were limited once the former Walsall man, Kyle Lightbourne, succumbed to the flu he had thought he could overcome.
Little blamed himself for giving Lightbourne the option of playing, but there was little in this defeat to suggest that Stoke will not be there or thereabouts at the end of the season.
As he said, the fact that their next match is against another promotion candidate - Preston - gives them the chance to get back on course without delay.
Bescot has some way to go before it becomes a Theatre of Dreams, but the evidence is that its team is on the up.
Graydon may have built and run it on the cheap, but the side might have enough to embarrass a Stoke, or even a Fulham, at the end of the campaign.
Goal: Rammell (41).
Walsall: (4-4-2): Walker; Marsh, Green, Roper, Pointon; Wrack, Larusson, Keates, Simpson; Rammell, Otta (Brissett, 86). Substitutes not used: Gadsby, Porter.
Stoke City (5-3-2): Muggleton; Keen, Sigurdsson, Robinson, Woods (Petty, 81), Small; Oldfield (Wallace, 81), Kavanagh, Forsyth; Lightbourne (Crowe, 20), Thorne.
Referee: E Wolstenholme (Blackburn).
Bookings: Walsall: Wrack, Keates, Stoke: Woods, Robinson, Oldfield.
Man of the match: Pointon.
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