Blues provided over half the support at The Bescot Stadium this evening as Blues beat Walsall 3-1 in what proved to be a more than worthwhile workout in front of just under 8,000 fans.
Thankfully the Walsall stewards were in generous mood and moved quickly to open 3 extra sections of the ground to Blues fans who had made the short trip, though it was somewhat surprising to be searched entering the stadium and being asked to remove all plastic tops from water bottles, pop bottles etc. This was, after all, a testimonial match to celebrate 10 years of loyal service to Walsall by Jimmy "whacka" Walker. Blues fans, as sporting as ever despite the continued bad Press they get, greeted Walker enthusiastically with more than generous applause.
Blues lined up, somewhat puzzingly.....
D.Johnson..... Savage .... Clemence ...... Dunn
If Dunn's role on the left baffled fans slightly as he drifted wide left, then central, then forward a bit, it left Clemence and Savage totally bewildered. No-one seemed to be covering in front of Clapham for long periods, and when you consider that this is the area where Paul Merson was operating (who is still FAR too good to be playing at Nationwide level even if he does tire towards the end of games) it was little surprise that it was Merson who caught the eye most in the first half hour with several accurate through balls and a couple of excellent crosses.
Blues looked solid at the back however playing what will probably be the same back four as will start against Spurs (Upson being suspended for that fixture) and Bennett was not really troubled. The first half hour was played at probably 80% pace, though even this was too much for Clemence and Savage to cope with at times. The former being caught in possession at least five times and the latter seemingly totally unable to pass to a fellow Blues player.
Devlin buzzed around busily up front, John looked very sharp, and Dunn, at times seems to be able to go past players with total nonchalance. However it all looked slightly bitty to be honest and the only real highlight was Stern John's clinical finish to put Blues ahead from what looked a VERY tight angle.
Probably the low point of the first half was Dunn having to go off injured with a muscular problem in his back. At least when Lazaridis replaced him it allowed Blues to revert to a traditional 4-4-2 with Clemence and Savage, now they knew what was expected of them, at last getting some sort of a grip of the midfield.
Half-time : Walsall 0 Blues 1
If the first half had been a bit "bread and butter" the second half was "creme brulée". Off went Savage, Clemence, Damian Johnson, and John and on came Dugarry, Kirovski, Carter and Hughes.
Blues lined up second half.....
Maybe it was a rocket from Steve Bruce at half-time or maybe it was the introduction of Carter, Hughes, and Kirovski (all with a point to prove) but Blues started the second half at full pace. The passing was crisp, accurate and adventurous, the movement was better and the tempo high. Within three minutes of the restart Blues were 2-0 up as Kirovski beatifully lobbed gently across the box for Dugarry to sublimely nod past the diving Walker. A goal of total quality.
Dugarry, looked , not only sharp and fit, but also relaxed .. clearly revelling in the atmosphere knowing that not too much was at stake. The touch was there, the vision was there, and all the usual little flicks and dummies were there. Alongside him Kirovski shone, making you wonder just why we haven't made more of his obvious talents (especially following his brilliant display against Man Utd last season). Jovan's ability to hold the ball and deliver exactly the right weighted pass at exactly the right time, again and again played players through into space and Blues were making Walsall look more than poor for long periods. Kirovski seemed to be the first Blues striker to play alongside Dugary who had some sort of ability to read exactly where Dugarry was going to play the ball and where he wanted it in return. A very very intelligent, skillful and underated player.
Indeed Kirovski himself was unlucky not to be on the scoresheet at least twice as goal bound shots were desperately blocked.
Bryan Hughes looked sharp and interested (!!) and more than willing to put tackles in when needed. Alongside him Darren Carter continued the superb form he showed in Malaysia, taking no prisoners and asking no quarter. With age comes confidence and several times Carter made telling runs into the area just narrowly failing to connect.
Somewhat bizarrely, and apparenly to his surprise, James Walker was substituted with 30 minutes left but in his replacement Walsall have unearthed an absolute gem. A bullet-like header from Dugarry (again) seemed destined to put Blues 3-0 up until it was spectacularly palmed over for a corner.
Soon afterwards Duggary again made space for himself on the edge of the area only to see his shot well saved, but luckily this time Carter was rushing in to thump it into the net from 15 yards.
A close range diving header from Carter was also excellently saved before Blues took their foot off the pedal in the final minutes and allowed Walsall to gain a late consolation goal.
As pre-season games go this one was more than worthwhile with the main positives being the return of Dugarry, the emergence at last of Kirovski, the return of some sort of understanding defensively, Hughes' interest, and Darren Carters continued growth of confidence in his own ability.
An easy victory, and a good night out.
Blues: Bennett, Kenna, Clapham, Cunningham, Purse, Dunn (Lazaridis 26), Clemence (Hughes 45), Savage (Carter 45), D. Johnson (Kirovski 45), John (Dugarry 45), Devlin.