Merson still has the legs for his standing ovation

Walsall 4 West Bromwich Albion 1

Whatever Paul Merson has they should bottle it - if that is not too inappropriate a remark, given his history of problems which have, sadly, recurred this year. "Merse" may have effectively walked out on Portsmouth, aware that he could no longer cut it in the Premiership, but at this level he can still provide inspiration.

Whatever else he does in his career - however brief it is in this part of the West Midlands - he proved to be the catalyst, in every sense of the word, for Walsall's most astonishing start to a season. At no point in their campaign against the big boys last term did West Brom trudge off three down at half-time, looking quite so demoralised, quite so beaten. They lost their opening game of that season too - but that was by a single goal at Old Trafford. Welcome back to the Nationwide.

To add to the woes of their manager, Gary Megson - unsparing in calling his side's defending "pathetic" - is the knowledge that he passed up the oppor-tunity to sign Merson when it became clear that, with his family settled in Sutton Coldfield, commuting to the south coast was too much. Joining Walsall was a surprise. They, in turn, have done every-thing to make him welcome - the captaincy, coaching duties, the No 10 shirt and free licence. Minimal running required. Alongside him in that midfield is Vinny Samways, now also well into his 30s and someone Merson used to play against as a 12-year-old (and again in the odd north London derby, of course).

Walsall's manager, Colin Lee, cleverly stationed the former Tottenham player 10 yards behind Merson, who, in truth, barely had a touch until he scored after 18 minutes. It was a sublime finish. Collecting a cut-back from another clever new signing, Simon Osborn, he shifted his feet and was able to loft the ball over Russell Hoult. "Only one player could have scored that goal," said Lee, and in his words there was justification enough for signing the 35-year-old.

West Brom were stunned. Until then they had been, as expected, the more imposing. Free headers had been squandered by a new signing, the big Dutch defender Joost Volmer, in the first minute and by another recruit, the striker Rob Hulse, as the richly talented Jason Koumas, alongside a third newcomer, James O'Connor, established a degree of control. That was until Merson struck again. Between his first goal and the second, every pass he attempted had gone astray - and then, after busy work by Steve Corica, the ball rolled to him. He hammered it imperiously, right-footed into the net.

The contest was quickly over. Osborn broke through the middle as the defence panicked, and his low shot came back off the post for the hard-working Jorge Leitao to scuff it over the line. Heady stuff.

After the break, Merson was pushed further forward as he tired, but Corica added a thumping fourth goal as the ball fell to him out wide. He looked up and simply smashed it over Hoult.

West Brom were rattled, and escaped two penalty appeals before Koumas's influence began to grow again. Running from deep and outnumbered, he beat three defenders before powerfully driving past Jimmy Walker.

He almost repeated the feat moments later, this time outwitting twice the number of opponents, but his shot was well saved.

Merson looked on in admiration. It was the kind of run he would have been proud of a few years ago, when his legs were more able. But though the body is waning the influence is not, and he was afforded the luxury of a late substitution and a deserved standing ovation.

There may not be many more days like this, but let us hope they last.

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