Walsall Web Fans looks back to a pre-season friendly between Walsall and Aston Villa in August 2003 at the Bescot Stadium. Former Arsenal, Middlesborough, Aston Villa, Portsmouth and England star Paul Merson had just arrived at the club in a blaze of publicity which included a SKY Sports live signing broadcast on a two year contract from Pompey and both sets of fans were looking forward to seeing ‘The Magic Man’ in action.
The Villa fans certainly turned out in force to catch what would be for them a final glimpse of the midfielder who served them well at Villa Park making 117 league appearances and scoring 18 goals whilst for many Walsall fans it was the first sight of Merse in their colours although he had appeared in a couple of low-key away friendlies leading up to this game.
The visitors should have had a penalty in the 11th minute as Martin Allback was felled by Jimmy Walker but the referee ignored Villa’s loud appeals. Paul Merson was pulling all the strings and was turning back the years linking up well with Vinny Samways, Simon Osborn and Steve Corica. Corica went close for Walsall on 16 minutes with a shot that just cleared the bar whilst Neil Emblen had gone to almost scoring an own goal when his clearance looped over his own bar. On 27 minutes Gavin Mc Cann tried his luck for Villa with a 25 yarder which Walker saved well.
However man of the moment Paul Merson put Saddlers ahead on 37 minutes when he ghosted into the box and directed a Jorge Leitao pass beyond Stefan Postma to give his new team the lead they deserved. The appreciative Villa fans warmly applauded their former hero’s goal against them. Walsall kept the lead by half time but were under the cosh greatly at the start of the second half and as a result of some intense pressure Darius Vassell pulled a goal back for the visitors. Gareth Barry’s superb free kick was met by Olof Mellberg’s head in the box for Vassell to finish off the move with a quality strike.
However Walsall soon fought back and took the lead thanks to a good finish by Gary Birch. Corica fed the young striker with a great ball down the middle, Birch held the ball up well and his low shot squirmed out of Postma’s grasp went under his body and rolled into the net.On the hour mark it could have been three following a great run by Corica who held off two challenges and let rip but this time Postma was awake and made a good save.
The biggest cheer of the afternoon was reserved for when Merse departed to a terrific standing ovation with everyone in all four stands rising to applaud the player who had worked his socks off in the 73rd minute. Thereafter the atmosphere turned a little ugly. Ozalan Alpay wound up the Walsall fans with a petulant swipe at Birch’s ankle after the player had beaten him to the ball and Lee Hendrie, who had been exchanging some views with his own fans, booted the ball hard into them! Stewards were called to calm things down but thankfully it didn’t get out of hand. The game, however, will always be remembered for the performance of Paul Merson who at 35 showed the 10,063 supporters present that he could still turn it on.
WALSALL…Walker, Hay, Emblen, Roper, Bazeley, Osborn, Samways, Aranalde, Merson, Leitao, Corica.
ASTON VILLA…Postma, Delaney, Alpay, Mellberg, Samuel, Hendrie, McCann, Hitzlsperger, Barry, Allback, Vassell.