THE FIVE STRANGEST SPORTING DAYS IN '95

Surprise follows surprise on a wild night in Walsall

It's half past eight, and half-time on a night of distinctly unglamorous and unexciting FA Cup football; Walsall against Torquay in a second-round replay. Toes are freezing, minds are numb, and although it's 1-1, no one's really quite sure how.

On a slithery, skiddy pitch an accurate pass is against the run-of-play, never mind a goal. If this is the magic of the Cup, I muse, it must have been choreographed by Tommy Cooper.

So what the hell am I doing here? I don't support either of these wretched teams, and tonight I could be sitting snug and warm in my local, watching England play Portugal on Sky for the price of a pint. Instead, I've coughed up pounds 12 in winkle-withering weather to watch a struggling Second Division team take on the bottom club in the entire Football League.

I tell myself it's because Rupert Murdoch still can't sell me the beauty of Being There. There again, I could just be a sad bastard. Either way, what followed was one of the most exhilharating 75 minutes of my football- watching life.

Derek Mountfield started it. The veteran centre-half limped off, and with him went most of Walsall's defensive discipline. Weebles do not wobble as much as the Saddlers' back-four defending a set-piece, and twice Torquay took the lead from corners.

Twice Walsall came back, sparked by the introduction of their Bermudan striker, Kyle Lightbourne, and as the tempo increased, so did the quality of the goals. Walsall's winger Scott Houghton provided the pick of the bunch, with a curling shot that looked as though it would have boomeranged back to him if the net had not got in the way.

The near-misses were not bad, either. With the score 3-3 in the third minute of injury-time, Torquay's Ian Hathaway endured the agony of seeing a shot hit both posts and roll along the goal-line before bouncing wide.

This was getting ridiculous now; ridiculously good, as both sides silently consented to regression therapy. Suddenly, it was like the best kind of schoolboy football, all joyful larks, shots-in on a full-sized pitch, without anyone worrying about all that tiresome defending. Any minute now, I expected my mum to pop out of the dug-out and shout: "Come in now, boys, it's time for tea." And no one would have complained if the ref had shouted: "OK, lads, next goal's the winner."

But that would have robbed us of a spectacular period of extra time; the first half alone yielded five goals before Walsall finally ran out winners 8-4. Their prize? A tie in the third round at home to Wigan Athletic.

Unglamorous? Unexciting? My seat's booked already.

ADRIAN GOLDBERG

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