Match Report: Walsall 2-3 The Imps
Seconds out, round 2 (or er, round 1,anyway). Lincoln are at the Bescot (Banks) stadium to try and finish the job they came so close to finishing on Saturday. The consensus amongst the small number of fans having a pie and a pint in the Saddlers Centre beforehand is we've probably missed the boat. They'll be too good, they'll have sussed us out and though they will be low on confidence they should be more than capable of finishing the job.
Holdsworth names an unchanged side again:
Imps Starting XI: Farman, Gray, Boyce, Miller, Gilbert, Mills, Fofana, Sheridan, Smith, Power, J Taylor.
Imps Subs: Nutter, Oliver, Bore, Rob Taylor, Larkin, Robinson, Turner.
Walsall name the following side which looks as though it only contains one change from the first game:
Walsall Starting XI: Grof, Taundry, Butler, Holden, Featherstone, Chambers, Paterson, Brandy, Bowerman, Benning, Chambers.
Walsall Subs: Hemmings, Jones, George, Williams, Downing, Walker, Baxendale.
As kick-off approaches The Bescot stadium looks deserted, there's hardly any home support and all the noise is coming from the Imps fans, red and white balloons are scattered around, the drum is banging away and we're busy telling "The Pride of the Midlands" exactly what we think of their ground, their fans and their team.
The teams kick-off with the Imps defending the goal in front of their fans. It's a cagey opening 30 minutes. The Imps are playing the percentage football that's starting to define their style: Hold the ball up briefly, knock it into the channels for Jamie Taylor to collect, lay it off and then bang a cross in. Grof looks a simply appalling goalkeeper early on. He charges out to claim a cross and simply drops it when he hits the ground and he's very lucky it doesn't drop to an Imps player. Shortly after he goes for a ball to save a corner and simply fumbles it out of play and shortly after that he completely muffs a kick giving it straight to Power. If the Imps needed an extra dose of self-belief then this was surely going to give it.
Meanwhile the Saddlers look better on the ball and are clearly looking to stretch the play across the width of the pitch regularly making sweeping diagonal passes across the pitch. Their only problem is a startling lack of quality for a League 1 side, time and again the ball is knocked out of play or the attack just peters out as the Imps defence closes the space down and forces the ball back to start again. The only positive signs for the Saddlers seem to be they've sussed out how to stop Smith when he cuts inside and he gives the ball away a number of times and also Fofana's willingness to muck about with the ball in his own half, at least twice he gives the ball away and the team have to work hard to close the Saddlers down and prevent a scoring opportunity.
On the occasions that both sides play it long Boyce is magnificent at the back for the Imps, winning everything. Up front meanwhile Taylor is annoying the central defenders no end. Jumping for everything, he's not winning much but there are no free headers for their back four. Walsall have a half chance when the ball drops to their player in the area but he simply smashes it wide, a lack of quality showing itself again.
Half time approaches and the Imps have probably just edged the first half on fight, commitment and effort, we've had a few long range shots and ruffled some feathers in the Saddlers defence from some set-pieces that the Imps have forced by simply being willing to chase, harry and tackle. The Saddlers meanwhile have had one half chance and almost got lucky with a deflected cross that Farman had to be alert to claim right on the stroke of half time. Imps fans breathe a sigh of relief, we're still in the cup and the team are fighting like lions to close the Saddlers down and restrict the space.
The second half starts with some stick given out to Grof as he arrives in his goal. The Saddlers start the brighter and as the ball comes to their striker after some bouncing around in and around the box he smashes it goalward, Farman is equal to it though and palms it away. Imps fans breathe a sigh of relief and get back to the business of shouting and cheering themselves hoarse, roaring the Imps on to keep going as they have been. Then comes the moment all the travelling fans have been hoping for. A long ball out of defence sees Taylor half-control the ball on the edge of the box, he flicks the ball out wide and unbelievably Alan Power is pounding up behind him, he takes one touch, waits for the keeper to start going down and absolutely smashes it into the back of the net, Power dances along behind the goal punching his Imps badge on his chest just before he is buried by Imps supporters and his fellow players. A Fantastic goal and absolutely deserved for the sheer work rate the whole team has put in so far.
The Imps now sense the Saddlers are rocking and absolutely go for the throat. Every set piece is hurled into the box followed by Imps players desperate to put this game to bed after the disappointment of Saturday. Power shoots just wide on a couple of occasions but the ball just won't drop the Imps way in the box.
Time ticks on and the fans can see the Imps players starting to tire, everything is still chased, the Saddlers players still harried at every turn but Jamie Taylor is now not getting off the deck when challenging, there's only one player closing the ball down instead of the previous two and the Saddlers are starting to get more and more space. Mills tries to hold on to the ball in midfield and is roughly challenged, he goes in with studs showing and as he gets up starts wrestling with the Saddlers player, surely he's not going to get himself sent off is he? After a long lecture from the ref he's shown a yellow, but he's a lucky boy to be on the pitch, the challenge alone was worth a yellow and starting a ruck with the opposition could easily have seen him down the tunnel.
Holdsworth senses the moment has come and takes off Smith replacing him with Oliver. It's a shrewd move, Taylor is knackered and is clearly saving his last ten percent for the one chance is hoping will come his way, with Oliver on Taylor can let him do the running and jumping while he concentrates on holding the ball up and giving the defence a break.
Then heartbreak again for the Imps, Oliver simply dwells too long on the ball outside our box, gives the ball straight to their player who knocks it inside and Taundry smashes it in the bottom corner via a deflection. All the air goes out the Imps players and fans in a heartbeat. All the Imps fans fear the worst, the players have given everything for the cause and there seems only one outcome now. If the Saddlers don't score before full time they surely will in extra time. The chants stop and the fans start shouting to "close them down" and "get stuck in" as they fear the glorious, impossible dream is coming to an end A few minutes later Holdsworth takes Gray off and replaces him with Bore.
It's just a siege now, the Saddlers lamping it into the box time after time. Farman and the defence are simply magnificent at this point, the Imps are rocking and the Saddlers miss a golden chance to finish the game, their striker is clean through and simply knocks the ball wide as Farman makes himself big, cue big breaths and knowing nods among the fans, the shrugs seem to say 'we've shot our bolt'. Somehow however the Imps hold on. The ref blows the final whistle and it's into extra time with the Imps looking absolutely out of gas.
The first half of extra time starts and from somewhere, god knows where, the Imps find some extra legs, we're a bit sharper, a bit quicker. Power receives the ball halfway into our half and with a simply sublime turn takes out 2 of their midfielders. With the ball at his feet he simply charges up-field bullying another Saddlers player out of the way and almost singlehandedly winning a throw. This leads to a corner which is smashed into the near post and flicked on to the far post. Leading a charge of white shirts that would have done the Light Brigade proud is Oliver to nod the ball into the corner. The Imps fans simply can't believe it and go absolutely mental. The sound of the Dambusters march bouncing off the walls of the Bescot is enough to raise the hairs on the back of your neck. The Imps have simply refused to acknowledge that they can be beaten and have got their rewards again for perseverance, effort, stamina, sheer bloody-mindedness and a moment of pure footballing skill from Alan Power.
The first half of extra time ends and the dream is still on…
The Saddlers to their credit don't wilt and simply carry on pounding away at the City goal. 2 corners in succession result in the first really panicky moment in the City defence but Farman once again sorts it all out, punching a ball from under his bar and claiming a ball from a cross.
Holdsworth responds by taking Power off and replacing him with Nutter. Power has been slotted into left midfields since Oliver came on and he's simply dead on his feet. Nutter slots into left midfield in an attempt to deny some space to the Saddlers right midfield and full back.
It's back to business as usual as the Saddlers continue to pump the ball forward, but Oliver is winning headers for us when the pressure is relieved and over all we look a side with better shape since Nutter has come on. Then a long punted clearance forward finds Oliver pounding towards the Saddlers central defender who should have everything under control, but once again the Saddlers lack of quality costs them dear. The defender barely touches the ball on the way back to the keeper, Oliver is in like a flash and while stretching for the ball he gives the deftest of flicks with the outside of his boot, the ball goes over the keepers shoulder and, in what seems like slow motion, bounces into the net. Oliver stands in front of the Imps fans arms outstretched nodding at his own class before being buried by Imps fans climbing the wall and by his teammates who had finally caught up with him.
Stuff happened after that, apparently the Saddlers scored a second just before the finish but not a single one of the Imps fans or players cared. The ref blew the final whistle and the party started…
The Imps had done it, done it with a never say die spirit and a proper team performance from a proper team of professionals. They recognised their limitations but also recognised that they had strengths too and played to their strengths. Also, just exactly when it was needed they demonstrated the quality of their technique as footballers as well as the quality of their spirit and it was these moments of technical quality that were the difference in the end.
A team worth supporting? Absolutely, they deserve all the support we can give them because they've earned it, the hard way.
A manager worth supporting? Absolutely, he's shown he can assemble a team of players, turn them into proper professionals who know how to work for each other and work for their rewards, inspiring them to heights they probably never suspected they could reach.
The fans were simply magnificent, they never stopped singing and clearly the players felt the vibe of their support, driving them on when their legs had gone. They truly were worth an extra man tonight.
As I left the Bescot to drive home, on a whim I stuck my Imps scarf in the window of my car. Halfway down the M6 a car zoomed up behind me flashing his lights. I pulled over into the inside lane and he came up alongside and gave me the thumbs up. We waved a bit at each other, both with a grin so big it nearly filled our cars and I reflected on how long it had been since I felt like that as an Imps fan and how good it felt to feel that we were all pulling together, all wanting the same thing. If we continue like this good things will happen, just like they did for Rob Bradley, dearly missed Keith and those fans who stuck by the Imps then.
And I'll reserve the most fulsome piece of praise for the team (management and players) until last.
It was a performance of Alexander-esque endeavour and spirit, no more needs to be said…
Match Stats: Walsall 2-3 The Imps
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