Football: Walsall's sharks put paid to Billy the Fish

FA Cup COMMENTARY
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The Independent Online
While the glory and headlines belonged to Hednesford and Hereford, the sense of fantasy which has sustained the FA Cup for 125 years also burned brightly in the shadow of the M6. Not only did Billy the Fish make his first-round debut, but he was up against a confidant of the cod philosopher who gave us seagulls, trawlers and sardines.

This Mr Fish was not, it must be admitted, the surreal footballing flipper of cartoon-strip and television fame but one Billy Heath, a Lincoln United defender whose day job in Hull docks has attracted the inevitable nickname. Thanks to the endless egalitarianism of the world's oldest and best knock- out competition, he spent Saturday afternoon striving to reel in Walsall's Roger Boli, friend and former colleague of Eric Cantona's.

In stoppage time, with the Fish and his fellow UniBond League part-timers trailing 1-0 and pressing for an equaliser, Boli finally wriggled free to seal victory for the Second Division hosts. As Lincoln's band of roofers, postmen and students trooped off to a deserved ovation, the executive- box TV screens were already relaying the sort of scenes they had dreamt of enjoying.

Hednesford's roly-poly manager, John Baldwin, was cavorting on the pitch after the 2-0 defeat of Hull. At Hereford, who beat Brighton 2-1 in a re-match of their struggle for League survival in May, the emotions were clearly more highly charged.

Yet to claim those victories as "Cup shocks" is to abuse the term. Hednesford's books are brimming with experienced ex-professionals, while Hereford remain a full-time team; only Doncaster stand between their victims and the trapdoor to the Vauxhall Conference.

If the greater upsets were caused by Basingstoke, Gainsborough and Solihull fighting back to draw on League territory, the true romance of the Cup was represented by its humblest survivors. And with the exception of Tiverton, who narrowly failed to uphold the honour of the evocatively named Screwfix Direct Western League at Cheltenham, they did not come any humbler than Lincoln United.

Sixth in the lower section of the old Northern Premier League, their tie at Bescot Stadium was the equivalent of a Premiership-versus-Third Division affair. When Walsall achieved arguably the greatest giant-killing of all time by beating Arsenal in 1933, Lincoln were not even formed.

On their only previous foray beyond the qualifying stages, six years ago, they lost 7-0 at Huddersfield. Their average "crowd" is 124, and although they had battled through five rounds since August, they came into the tie on the back of a 5-1 battering by Stocksbridge Park Steels.

So the circumstances looked propitious for Boli to snap out of a sequence of six games without a goal. The 32-year-old brother of Basile, of Rangers and Marseille fame, he spent his formative years alongside Cantona at Auxerre. When he ended up at Walsall last summer - an agent had randomly phoned the club as he headed over on a ferry - his friend berated him for setting his sights too low.

By early October, the diminutive striker had 11 goals, several of them spectacular, but his bid for a 12th against Lincoln began to look doomed. Mike Heath, brother of Billy, saved bravely at his feet. Then Boli's brutal volley shook the crossbar.

The harder he tried, the worse it got. His partner, Andy Watson, finally found a way past the Heaths and the Frenchman was spared the indignity of substitution only because Walsall's Danish manager, Jan Sorensen, sensed a goal would restore his confidence. When it arrived, set up by the promising Michael Ricketts, the ball sneaked through the keeper's legs.

It may prove a timely blow in more ways than one. On Wednesday, Walsall revert to the underdogs' role in which they will doubtless be more comfortable, visiting West Ham in the Coca-Cola Cup. Boli, who had a trial with the London club last year, now has no excuse not to rise to the occasion.

Lincoln United certainly did on Saturday. In the veteran left-back Steve Carter they had a player whose stylish contribution made one wonder how, or why, he has never played at League level.

They also left the Cup laughing all the way to the bus, if not quite the bank. Asked by reporters last week what his players did for a living, co-manager John Wilkinson listed Baz Barker as a gravedigger. The image of him toiling in the cemetery proved irresistible to the Midlands press and the Walsall programme.

Barker, it transpired, is the club's president Jeremy Beadle, though the joke was on the press as much as anybody. So eagerly were they penning their stories about how Lincoln aimed to "bury" Walsall that they did not smell a rat, let alone a fish.

Goals: Watson (35) 1-0; Boli (90) 2-0.

Walsall (4-4-2): Walker; Evans, Roper (Mountfield, h-t), Viveash, Marsh; Ricketts, Keister, Keates, Peron; Boli, Watson (Hodge, 74). Substitutes not used: Porter, Ryder, Naisbitt (gk).

Lincoln United (5-3-2): M Heath; Casey (Barker, 84), Wright, Trotter, B Heath, Carter; Gray, McDaid, Gibson (Farley, 76); Munton (Simmons, 60), Ranshaw. Substitutes not used: Reddington, Daniels (gk).

Referee: A Bates (Stoke-on-Trent).

Bookings: Walsall: Keates, Keister. Lincoln United: McDaid.

Man of the match: Carter.

Attendance: 3,279.

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