Wednesday, 27th September 2000
Got to the dark, wet and generally miserable ground about 10 minutes before the kick off. Sarah and I had an entire row to ourselves which was nice and there was a pretty poor attendance in general. The Bobby Moore stand was brimming as usual (hats off to them) but the rest of the park was just dotted with fans.
We lined up with a strong side which was a surprise to me; Harry must be taking the cups very seriously this year. Shaka was in goal and looking fitter and more confident than I have seen him for ages. With Rio out, our back three comprised of Stimac, Margas and Pearcey. Winterburn and Lomas in as wing backs supported Carrick, Lampard and (always believe in...) Joey Cole, in midfield. Up front I was relieved to see Kanoute was back after struggling off against Coventry and of course Gucci's answer to football, Di Canio.
The whistle blew and we were on the case from the start. A darting run from Cole, neat link up with Lomas, edge of the box, just to see the shot get deflected for a corner. A few minutes of sustained bombardment saw us break the home leg deadlock score. Kanoute selling two defenders dummies in the 18yd box, gorgeous cross across the face of the goal to see Lomas (now sporting a short hair cut and no longer looking like Shaggy from Scooby Doo) nut the ball into the back of the net.
Then a very strange thing happened. Unbeknown to the watching fans we made 10 substitutions (with the exception of Shaka). Each player was substituted with a clone of themselves perfect in every way but filled to the brim with apathy.
Walsall started their pressure campaign. A plethora good passing, control and shots on goal forced Shaka into save after save. Their set pieces were brilliant; every free kick ending up in a shot or good goal attempt. Corner after corner found a Walsall head and invariably a goalmouth scramble ensued. Of course something had to give and our one man defence aka Shaka Hislop could not keep the ball out. 1-1 and all they needed was another goal to wrap up the leg (we would have needed to beat them 3-2 as away goals count).
A dreadful performance and sustained pressure saw our players leave the field at half time to boos from the scanty crowd. Herby Hammer and Bubbles the Bear came on at half time and made amends, putting the first half performance to shame.
We came out of the dressing room a few minutes before Walsall for the second half. Standing about in the rain getting drenched, the team looked fired up courtesy of a couple of tasty rockets from Messrs Rednapp and Lampard.
After a few minutes of getting nowhere we slipped back into apathy mode and again they were all over us. Driving forward with good flowing football I have to pick out their attacker called Hall who was excellent all night and a constant thorn in the side of Margas and Stimac (who both appeared drunk the way they were playing).
A late rash challenge on Frankie Lampard from behind went unpunished as the ref allowed the game to play on. Even when the ball was put into touch the culprit was not even spoken to, let alone booked. Lampard limped off to add to our ever increasing injury list.
Our talented midfielder was not replaced with another midfield player; instead Potts came on to slot into the Wing Back position! Margas is playing like a one winged parrot, Newton is on the bench so instead of replacing a duff defender with Pottsy and playing Newton in his preferred Wing Back role, we stick on a defender in a wing back position. Perhaps it should have been switching to a back 4 but the roles did not turn out that way.
One goal was all they needed to sink us; they knew it and we knew it. A volley of shots, headers and what must have been 6 consecutive corners at one point saw Shaka back to full fitness and standing firm between the sticks.
We got the result by managing to hold them off by the skin of our teeth. We play brilliant at the start of the season and get no results. We play rubbish and manage a result. Funny old game isn't it?
A final word. I hate writing down reports but there was absolutely nothing good about last night except for the first five minutes and Shaka Hislop's performance. A scenario of the night was typified by Di Canio: He held up the ball just outside their 18 yard box with his back to a couple of defenders. He tried some of his usual trickery, twists and turns and then (unbelievably) just stopped, threw his arms in the air and stared at the ball as one of the defenders trudged round and took it off him.
Bad luck Walsall, you deserved to win.
Team: Hislop, Winterburn, Margas, S.Pearce, Stimac, Lomas, Carrick, Cole, Lampard, Di Canio, Kanoute
Subs: Forrest, Potts (Lampard 70), Newton, Byrne, Defoe
Walsall:Walker, Barras, Brightwell, Bennett, Tilson, Aranalde, Bukran, Matias, Hall, Leitao, Angell
Subs: Emberson, Keates, Roper (Barras 48), Byfield (Angell 57), Wright (Hall 79)
Goals: Lomas (2), Leitao (8)
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