England League One club Walsall FC kept its nerve and enough gas in reserve to edge a combined Pro League XI 3-2 in an entertaining exhibition match at the Ato Boldon Stadium, Couva last night.
The Walsall team, which finished ninth in League One last season, maintained its 100 percent record on its Trinidad and Tobago tour after a 3-1 win over National Super League team Stokely Vale FC at the Plymouth Recreation Ground on Friday.
Walsall will complete its tour tomorrow on July 9 against Pro League host team, Central FC, from 7 pm in a double header at the Hasely Crawford Stadium, Port of Spain. The match will be preceded by a women’s clash between Central FC and Barataria Ball Players. Admission is $30 while children under-12 can pay $10.
If Walsall manager Dean Smith had hoped for some stiff competition in the Caribbean, he certainly got it yesterday. Local football fans who streamed out of the Couva venue after the final whistle must have wondered how on earth the English club came out on top.
For the first hour, the Pro League team XI bossed the game with ease as the “Saddlers” were penned into their own half for long periods and struggled to match the movement of the local midfielders.
Teenaged DIRECTV W Connection midfielder Jomal Williams was particularly influential as was the Neal & Massy Caledonia AIA duo of right back Kareem “Tiny” Joseph and midfielder Akim Armstrong. All three combined for the Pro League’s opening goal in the 31st minute, which Williams netted with a dash through the heart of the Walsall midfield and a side footed finish to the left of goalkeeper Liam Roberts.
The local side made 11 changes at the half but maintained its momentum as another Connection teenager, attacker Neil Benjamin, ran on to a through pass in the opposing area before producing a low, sharp finish into the far corner in the 54th minute.
A rout seemed a distinct possibility at that point. Instead, Walsall staged an unlikely comeback with more than a little help from a 19-year-old Tobagonian named Jem Gordon.
Gordon, who plays for National Super League (NSL) team 1976 FC Phoenix, is as unknown to the Trinidad top flight as he must have been to the Saddlers. But he has set about making an impression on both audiences over the past week.
Gordon scored for Walsall against Stokely Vale on Friday and he gave Couva a taste of his finishing ability last night as he stroked the ball into the far corner after a sweeping attack from the tourists in the 74th minute.
Two minutes later, the Tobagonian produced an encore as he again found space between the Pro League’s three central defenders and his strike ricocheted off goalkeeper Glenroy Samuel’s body and fortuitously looped up and into the back of the net.
Walsall never looked back. It was a British triallist—the club is keeping his identity under wraps—who grabbed the winner in the 82nd minute with a precise drive into the far corner while midfielder Sam Mantom almost added gloss to the score summary with an effort that clipped the outside of the post.
By then, the Pro League XI was looking like the assortment of players that it was and the fluency had left its game.
Central FC is up next for the Saddlers and there should be more than a few new faces for local fans there too as coach Terry Fenwick, an England 1986 World Cup defender and ex-Tottenham captain, cleared out half his playing staff from last season.
Veteran midfielders Marvin Oliver and Jason Marcano and ex-Walsall striker Hector Sam remain while Fenwick recruited 25-year-old St Ann’s Rangers defender Jamal Jack, who played under him at San Juan Jabloteh.
Otherwise, there are more than a half dozen teenagers in the first team for the “Couva Sharks” including last season’s acquisition Rundell Winchester, former Rangers youth player Kevon Goddard and Nicholas Dillon, Dwight Pope and Javon Sample, who were picked up from the Secondary Schools Football League (SSFL).
“We cleared about 20 players off our roster (who were) on the wrong side of 25,” Fenwick told the TTProLeague website. “So I’ve brought the age group right down… I want to show in the professional league and in Trinidad and Tobago that at 17, 18, 19, you can be a top player (and) a national team player…
“It will be about developing the youngsters (and) making sure they recognise their positions and what their roles and responsibilities are within the team mechanism.”
Local football fans will have their first sight of the supposed Central revolution on Tuesday. And so will Walsall.
Pro League XI: 22.Kevin Graham (1.Glenroy Samuel 46); 13.Kareem Joseph (11.Elton John 46), 20.Rodell Elcock (3.Nuru Muhammad 46), 21.Kareem Moses (2.Gerrard Williams 46), 18.Kevon Villaroel (19.Ross Russell Jr 46); 6.Jeromie Williams (12.Jayson Joseph 46), 14.Mikhail Awai (16.Keyon Edwards 46); 17.Akim Armstrong (8.Jemel Sebro 46), 10.Jomal Williams (4.Marcus Gomez 46), 15.Nathan Lewis (7.Neil Benjamin 46); 9.Devorn Jorsling (5.Trevin Caesar 46).
Coach: Ross Russell.
Walsall FC: Liam Roberts; Dean Holden, Andy Butler (captain), Dean Holden; Ben George, James Baxendale, Nicky Featherstone, Jake Heath, Ashley Hemmings; Danny Griffiths, Rundell Winchester.
Substitutes Used: Ben Purkiss, Sam Mantom, Gem Gordon.
Manager: Dean Smith
Editor’s Note: Walsall FC closed its Trinidad and Tobago mini-tour with a 1-1 draw against local Pro League club Central FC on July 9 with goals from Jason Marcano (Central) and Danny Griffiths (Walsall).