Tuesday, 24 January 2017

#42 Bescot Stadium, Walsall

Walsall 3 Bristol Rovers 1
Saturday 21st January 2017, League One

Discounting the rained-off game against Swindon Town back in August, today was to be my first league away trip with Rovers this season. I'd had my eye on this one since the fixtures were released as it's conveniently located close to my old stomping ground of Stoke-on-Trent, so it could be ticked off on the way to a meetup with some uni mates. 

Working to stabilise after two successive promotions, Rovers were doing better than many expected and were sitting a few positions shy of the playoff spots before the match. Our away form was shocking however having lost the last five on the bounce and receiving a pair of thumpings from South London rivals Millwall and Charlton. Despite finishing third the season prior to this one, Walsall were distinctly mid-table but did have the noteworthy scalp of league leaders Sheffield United who they had seen off 4-1 at the Bescot Stadium the week before today's encounter. Somewhat grim knowledge for us going into the match.

The day started symbolically enough at IKEA Eastville, former site of Rovers' spiritual home Eastville Stadium, where I met up with Jack, Max, Harley and Sam for the drive up to Walsall. The time passed quickly as we drank, played radio quizzes and took the piss out of Sam's inexplicable decision to come dressed as Woody from Toy Story.

When we rocked up to the stadium things were already pretty busy and the club were operating and one-in-one-out policy at the away supporters bar to cope with the 1,991 strong Gas contingent. With this in mind we decided to nip into a nearby hotel in search of liquid refreshment. Unfortunately about 100 other people had the same idea so we were waiting for ages. We did however run into Terry and Luke who were nice enough to share some of their Buckfast with me, the beginning of what would be a slippery slope for this reporter.

At around this time the day's line-up was announced on Twitter, featuring the surprise return of earnest Bedfordshire gnome Stuart Sinclair in a central midfield trio with Chris Lines and Ollie Clarke with winger Billy Bodin playing behind Matty Taylor and Rory Gaffney. Notable by their absence were in form striker Ellis Harrison and winger Cristian Montano, who's inclusion you would think would allow Bodin to play in his more natural winger position. However neither one of this duo were even named as substitutes. Possibly there were training injuries we didn't know about but on the other hand we've grown used to the odd head-scratcher line up from Darrell Clarke. The prospect of a drubbing loomed ever closer.

I've often peered at the Bescot Stadium as I've passed over the M6 through Walsall as you can see into it's large main stand clearly from the road. No disrespect to Walsall intended but it's always seemed like a huge ground for a club that usually only pull in crowds around the high 4000s. While it's true that a lot of the ground was empty today, it's still quite a tidy stadium for the level. The obvious main focal point is the aforementioned two-tier main stand (or the Tile Choice Stand as it is somewhat nauseatingly known). The other three sides of the stadium are much smaller and more befitting of a club with Walsall's crowds. I like the fact that all the sides are boxed in with no gaps between them which allows crowd noise to travel better and kept the wind away on this cold afternoon. Despite this lack of gaps the stands still feel quite separate from each other so the stadium doesn't feel like a drab bowl. Of all the new build stadiums I've been to in the league, this has so far been my favourite. 

The game kicked off and the sides fought evenly for almost the entirety of the first half, with perhaps Rovers having an edge on attacking chances. At one point a pass from Stuart Sinclair found Billy Bodin in enough space to dazzle his marker with step-overs and shot for the bottom corner, his hopes of notching first blood dashed by a fine diving save by Saddlers keeper Neil Etheridge, seen here taking a selfie in front the mausoleum of Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang, North Korea whilst on international duty with the Philippines. The cheeky Juche snapper would continue to perform well, saving an accurate, if rather tame shot on goal from a Chris Lines free kick from the edge of the box.

Things were looking up for the Gas as it's not often this season we've made it through 45 minutes without conceding a goal, especially away from the Mem. However a defending masterclass from James Clarke in which he flailed forward to clear a Walsall free-kick which floated into the box, only to somehow fail to boot it away and instead flick it onto his trailing heel. This caused the ball to sail into the air right above the penalty spot to be met with a perhaps understandably bemused Lines who panic-headed it into the path of Eoghan O'Connell who smashed it home. Monkey with hands over eyes emoji.

Things went from bad to worse in the second half when Rovers captain Tom Lockyer lunged forward but failed to make any meaningful contact with a ball that had been lamped forwards from inside the Walsall half, allowing the ball to bobble into the path of Simeon Jackson who now faced only an already committed Joe Lumley. This wasn't even an attacking move for God's sake. The doubtlessly overjoyed Jackson popped in an easy chip and made it 2-0 to Walsall.

A mere five minutes later another aerial ball was chested down at the edge of the box by Byron Moore, or I should say started to be chested down, before it touched the ground Moore was, there's no other word for it, mugged the fuck off by Joe Edwards who swiped the ball in the air and went around Moore who was by this point on the floor. Lumley rushed out (he had little other choice) and Edwards slotted past him. Three pieces of utterly miserable defending.

Matty Taylor gave us something to cheer about in the 82nd minute, heading Lee Brown's cross over the head of Etheridge who had come too far forward. Another away loss sees Rovers 10th in League One, a position I'm perfectly happy with but displays like this make me less inclined to follow them away. Unfortunately for me I've already made plans to attend Port Vale away in four weeks but a bit of suffering is good for the soul, or something.

It was all a bit too much for Luke

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