WALSALL 1-1 NOTTS COUNTY
When Charles Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities, it was the French revolution that he had on his mind, but watching Notts this afternoon there was no sense of any revolutionary spirit from Chris Kiwomya's side, but plenty of notorious Gallic sulkiness. On an afternoon that never really got going, though, the irony was that it took Notts' much maligned French forward to come off the bench and salvage a game for the second successive week.
Walsall's Bescot Stadium is one of the most strangely located stadiums in League One, sitting just about underneath a motorway and with its own train station. Who actually gets off at Bescot Stadium the rest of the time i'm not entirely sure, but it does make a trip to the Saddlers one of the more enjoyable and simple in the league. Their supporters' club is fun, too, with cheap drinks and more shag pile carpet than is reasonable - like a miners' welfare without a brass band. One thing you definitely couldn't describe as like a carpet, however, was Walsall's pitch - it was a genuine surprise to me that the game went ahead having seen it, not because of any inclement weather, but because it looked like it'd been prepared by a particularly aggressive tractor. The end that Notts began defending, in particular, was just mud that the groundsman had poked holes in for reasons that remain entirely unclear.
Notts caretaker manager Chris Kiwomya, meanwhile, decided that the evidence of three away defeats in quick succession after a long unbeaten run wasn't enough to discount 3-5-2, which Notts bizarrely reverted to. Upfront, however, the Magpies had loanee Jacob Blyth making his debut following his arrival from Leicester, alongside fellow short-term acquisition John Cofie who scored on his debut last week. I can only imagine what Julian Kelly keeps doing to his managers to deserve being constantly and ridiculously dropped, but i'm sure that it must be absolutely horrific. Walsall, meanwhile, have had a season so bizarre it's quite difficult to explain - they'd won eight of their last ten after a run of thirteen without a victory.
After conceding inside four minutes at Hartlepool, thirty seconds at Stevenage and playing the entire first half against Crewe last week as though they were in a coma, it wasn't hard to see Notts' lacklustre and, frankly, unprofessional start to the match coming. Inside three minutes young Walsall forward Jamie Paterson wandered into the box as if he was going for a gentle evening stroll, entirely unchallenged before crossing into the arms of the returning Bartosz Bialkowski. Next to meander into one of the huge gaps in Notts' back three was Will Grigg, who latched onto Paterson's pass, got through one of the most pathetic attempts at a challenge ever by Gary Liddle, rounded Bialkowski only to be denied by Alan Judge, who for some reason found himself as the last line of defence and hacked the ball off the line.
At the other end, a comedy tumbleweed would probably have been rolling through the Walsall box was it not for the sticky mud, although returning skipper Neal Bishop did at least have a shot. Unfortunately it went out for a throw in. Walsall's pressure was building and the Saddlers were bemusing Notts with their willingness to pass the ball forwards, something which found them the lead just before the half hour, albeit with some help from the most unfit match official i'd ever seen. A long ball over the top found Paterson, an absolute mile offside, something missed by the rotund linesman who was gasping for breath about five yards behind the play. Paterson bizarrely decided to just smash the ball straight up in the air whilst clean through, but it mattered not as Bialkowski needlessly ploughed straight through him to concede a penalty, bringing to a close one of the most thoroughly incompetent passages of play of the entire season.
The penalty was delayed as what the BBC have decided was a flare, but was more of an unidentified and entirely non-threatening smoking object, was thrown at the spherical match official from the away end, causing the referee to run around desperately as if he was considering a call to the bomb disposal unit. After a few minutes the few puffs of smoke subsided and Grigg slotted the ball into the bottom corner before strangely deciding to celebrate by running towards and then pointing at an entirely empty stand, basking in the adulation of one thousand empty red pieces of plastic. Walsall begun to take even more charge of the game after the match, with ex-Notts man Febian Brandy taking a break from diving all over the place under literally no contact to waltz through the Notts defence and force a smart save out of Bialkowski. On the stroke of half time though, Notts finally got somewhere near the Walsall goal. Jacob Blyth, who had looked every inch the Southern League footballer, finally got a touch of the ball and fed Cofie, who smashed the ball into the Walsall fans from twenty five yards. That was as good as it got for Notts in a half where the players looked like they'd rather have been doing anything else in the world other than playing a football match.
As with last week against Crewe, though, something happened at half time to wake the Magpies from the slumber - namely the introduction of Yoann Arquin. In recent weeks the Frenchman has begun running around a bit, which has added a whole new dimension to his play that immediately resulted in him getting dropped. Notts came closer than they had in the entire first half within a minute of the restart, the previously peripheral and infuriating Campbell-Ryce cutting inside and shooting straight at the previously redundant Ian McLoughlin. The Milton Keynes loanee then had to save from Arquin after a powerful run, but wasn't needed as Alan Judge wasted Notts' two best chances of the game thus far, hitting two loose balls in the box wide and then high when both looked like odds on goals for the Irishman.
A goal was coming for Notts, and it came from Arquin, who has been suffering something of a goal drought since Keith Curle came out in the press to back him as Notts' main man upfront. Campbell-Ryce finally produced a cross that didn't fly into the stand and picked out the far post, where Paul Downing tried to wrestle Arquin to the ground and then fell over, something that has never been in the centre back's handbook. The ball then ricoched off his teammate to the Frenchman, who swept home to level things up. Predictably though, Notts then stopped playing for the most part having got themselves level, although Arquin should still have won it when he headed Alan Sheehan's free kick wide from two yards out as the match headed towards injury time. Walsall, for their part, had stopped playing almost entirely although they did have another penalty appeal when Brandy fell under what was presumably a light gust of wind. With both teams bizarrely seemingly happy to settle for a draw that was of no use to either of them the match fizzled out, with Notts bringing on Gavin Mahon for Jeff Hughes in what has to go down as the weirdest substitution since, well, Hamza came on at Hartlepool.
Taken in isolation a point at Walsall isn't a terrible result, but there's something entirely infuriating about this Notts side. For the second week in a row they've put in a decent, attacking, entertaining second half performance that was entirely tarnished by the fact they were, to a man, lacklustre, disinterested and hopeless for the first forty five. As with our entire season, they only look interested in playing for very brief periods, spending the rest of the time pointlessly trying to pass it between three centre backs in a quagmire, something which inevitably always ends with Alan Sheehan slicing the ball out of play. It's definitely becoming harder and harder to take satisfaction from snatching these points and briefly excellent performances - it just underlines the fact that these players have been cheating not just the fans, but two managers whom they claim to like and want to succeed, for quite a long time.