New faces, same story
Reporter: Matthew Chambers
Date online: 04 February 2013
Walsall 3, Athletic 1
THIS DEFEAT summed up the tenure of Paul Dickov.
A strong line-up assembled by the manager, featuring high-calibre players you wouldn’t necessarily expect to turn out in Athletic shirts given the ever-strict budget, began quickly and brightly.
Lee Barnard — a striker of repute, last season part of the Southampton side promoted to the Premier League — marked his debut with a superb header from Lee Croft’s pinpoint cross as the visitors to the Banks’s Stadium tore into their task.
Compressing the pitch, biting into tackles, passing the ball with quality, tight at the back; despite four enforced changes, this was still recognisably the team that, six days earlier, had seen off Liverpool in extraordinary fashion.
Chances were being carved out regularly, even aside from Barnard’s goal. Two penalty appeals fell on deaf ears. One was for a push on Chris Iwelumo, who worked hard without proving particularly effective, and the other a clear tug on the shirt of livewire Barnard.
Had Athletic kept up the form of the opening third of the contest, three points would have been heading back up the M6. And the manager may well have lived to fight another battle.
Sadly, that simply isn’t the way it has worked under the regime of Dickov.
Over the course of two and a half seasons, 90-minute performances have been the exception rather than the rule.
Once again, Athletic brushed shoulders with adversity. Once again, Athletic crumbled. Once again, there was no phoenix rising from the flames as Dickov’s reign finally burned out.
In attempting to force a positive result, the flipside of Athletic flooding the pitch with attackers was that 11-goal leading scorer Jose Baxter was left prompting from way back in the centre circle. Athletic’s heavy pressure rarely looked likely to result in goals.
When Jamie Paterson ran through a huge hole to drill home as defenders backed off, improving James Baxendale’s 40th-minute equaliser for the Saddlers, it wasn’t too surprising.
Paterson repeated the trick in injury time, breaking past an abject Athletic back line containing in Connor Brown a player who had an extremely tortured afternoon. The finish was terrific.
From an Athletic viewpoint, the final hour was dismal. Walsall, now on a run of five consecutive home wins, were ruthless and impressive.
Athletic can be better than this. To avoid relegation they must be better than this — whoever takes charge.
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