A point away from home isn't a bad return, and with an 89th minute equaliser making it seem almost like a victory we left the Bescot pumped up and smiling. Coming back from two down and playing all but 22 minutes a man down is some achievement, but surely without Power's rush of blood to the head we'd have won this one comfortably.
As it was the West Midlands, it had to be Lichfield, and just as I was about to wait in Spoons for the Whippet to open, Rob called to recommend the Horse & Jockey. The landlady explained that they didn't allow football fans as they did lots of meals, but we five were OK. Presumably we're too old and knackered to be raucous, but they quickly put a sign on the door anyway, advising fans to go elsewhere. Anyone looking through the window and seeing the shirt might have been puzzled. Anyway, we enjoyed an hour there before telling them we'd be back next week heading to the Whippet and trying to pick the team. Unsuccessfully, as we discovered, so we spent the hour it took to get to Walsall working out who'd be playing wide.
You know what the opposition think of you when the teams are introduced as "the pride of the West Midlands against the mighty Sunderland." As we filled two sides of the ground, they were probably right. Mighty indeed.
Matthews Baldwin Flanagan James
McGeady Gooch Honeyman Oviedo
Kicking away from the University of Wolverhampton end, where half of our lot were standing in front of their seats, Oviedo, wearing gloves, started on the right and McGeady on the left. We quickly won a corner, then another, before Oviedo ditched the knitwear and swapped wings and win some more corners. After a partial clearance, Power slung in a lovely cross, right onto the unmarked Baldwin's forehead - but the header went a yard wide. Should have scored.
With Power dictating play, it seemed like only a matter of time before we scored. We were into double figures for corner kicks within fifteen minutes, but whether long, short, near or far post, we couldn't fashion an effort on goal. Walsall were all over the shop while we maintained a good shape, with Oviedo and McGeady switching sides and occasionally letting Gooch, James, and Matthews have a run down the line.
Then we got to the 22nd minute, and the ball ran loose on halfway. A Walsall player slid in, as did Power, but our man's studs were showing, and the ref made possibly his only correct decision of the afternoon. Straight red, making it more early baths in four months than Catts has had in about six years. He didn't need to make the tackle, and he certainly didn't need to make it the way he did. Daft bugger - a lot of hard thinking will have to take place concerning his SAFC future- after tempers have cooled and the dust has settled, of course.
Naturally, our shape disintegrated, and we struggled unsuccessfully to get hold of the ball in midfield. Their player was probably unlucky to be booked for a high foot that caught Baldwin when he had every right to go for the ball in our box, then there was an almighty scramble to clear after our central defender left the ball for McLaughlin, who stayed put. Walsall got the ball in the net but it was ruled offside - video evidence shows it might have been perfectly legal. Eeeeeh, ref man woman man.
When we got away down the right, Oviedo was blatantly body-checked but the ref deemed it unworthy of a yellow as he missed yet another chance to show who was in charge. Despite the extra man, Walsall still conceded corners and we still didn't convert any of them. Baldwin and Flanagan got a bit of s battering from Ferryhill lad Cook, what you call a "typical League One number nine" but didn't let him win any headers where it mattered. By the time the three added minutes were announced, we'd been wondering for a while how Ross the Boss would change things so that we could get on top in midfield, where we were in danger of being overrun.
Getting to the break on level terms was no mean feat, but we fully expected at less one change for the second half. We didn't get it, and within a minute we were behind after Walsall burst down their right and put in a low cross that was put away comfortably by Gordon. In an attempt to win back midfield, Ross sent on O'Nien for Oviedo, but before he'd had a kick we were further behind when the ref allowed play on after a foul on Gooch on halfway. We lost the ball immediately and Ginnelly fired in a screamer from the left. Fabulous goal, but there should have been a free-kick to us.
At this stage, you couldn't see anything other than a defeat, as there were huge spaces in the middle that the home side used to get at our defence. For all the industry of Gooch and Honeyman, and the artistry of McGeady, Maja was our sole forward presence, and he was muscled out of most things with our lack of numbers meaning lack of support for him.
With half an hour to go, Maguire replaced Maja and he had an immediate effect, winning the ball in the centre and getting it out to O’Nien on the left. Despite the attentions of three defenders, he managed to get the ball to the corner and then to Gooch on the near edge of the box. Young Lynden volleyed a cross first time to the near post, where McGeady, a few yards out, poked a shot just inside the post. The keeper probably should have done better, but we didn't care - it went in. We were back in the game.
Our tails were well and truly up, and we thought Matthews had "done a Bradford" when he volleyed back into the goalmouth, but the Saddlers hoofed it clear before anyone could apply the finishing touch. Soon after, following Maguire carrying the ball across the middle, he was at it again, this time getting in a shot from inside the box...but as we readied ourselves for celebration, out came a Walsall boot to clear it off the line. Nearly, Lads, keep at it....
It wasn't all us though, far from it. We might have found new energy, but there were still more of them than us. Thankfully, the two headed chances they had went over the top, and we flung bodies in the way of a few shots, with McLaughlin taking crosses when necessary. Our fans were roaring the players forward, but there seemed little on for Gooch when he got the ball in the box, as he was surrounded by defenders. Somehow, though, he twisted and turned to find enough space to unleash a low shot across from the left ....and it hit the net just inside the far post. Fans spilled into the pitch from both stands to join the players in mad scenes of celebration as those who stayed on the legal side of the line bounced around like demented space-hoppers.
There were 89 minutes gone when that went in, then six extra were announced, and we won the ball back and piled forward. This allowed a couple of Walsall breaks which we dealt with in whatever manner came to hand, and we screamed for a winner. There was a shot a foot over, more pressing, then the final whistle. It felt like a win, and may yet prove to be a vitally important point.
Great character was shown to get anything from a game in which we looked dead and buried on the hour. The substitutions worked to get us out of a situation almost entirely of our own (Mr Power, you know who I mean) making, aided and abetted by a yellow-shirted buffoon who seemed more interested in looking smart and not being biased towards "Mighty Sunderland" than actually officiating correctly. Absolutely plonker, who deemed two Walsall tackles that were later than Power's unworthy of yellow cards. OK, their foot wasn't off the ground in the same manner, but they were naughty challenges.
Man of the Match? While the introduction of Maguire proved the catalyst for the comeback, it was McGeady, moved to a more central, roving role in the second half, who provided most of the bullets. Special mention to Gooch as well, who worked his socks off all day despite losing this way, like others, after Power blew a fuse.
Onwards and upwards