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Match report: Walsall 1-3 Villa
Darren Bent and Emile Heskey get Alex McLeish's reign off to a winning start.
21st Jul 2011
Match report: Walsall 1-3 Villa


By Dan Harrison

Villa ushered in the Alex McLeish era in style with a vibrant display against near neighbours Walsall at the Banks's Stadium.

Hotshot Darren Bent continued where he left off last term with two goals, while Emile Heskey converted the third to give the new boss a winning start.

And McLeish was able to make a decent early assessment of the options at his disposal with 22 players getting time on the pitch.

The Scotsman showed he meant business against the League One outfit by handing new goalkeeper Shay Given a debut with strong outfield contingent in front of him.

Bent led the line on his own ahead of a three-man support cast of Emile Heskey, Stephen Ireland and Marc Albrighton.

There is no doubt Villa's first-half performance befitted a side playing with a fresh start - just as McLeish talked about on his first day in the managerial hotseat.

Who better to typify the 'clean slate' approach than midfielder Ireland and full-back Stephen Warnock?

The duo, who found themselves on the periphery for much of last season, were at the heart of some crisp attacking play, along with Heskey who slammed home the third goal.

An exquisite one-touch move created an opening for Warnock after eight minutes, though the England international dragged his effort wide.

Seconds later, Bent arrived in the six-yard box to side-foot home Heskey's cross with a typical poacher's finish.

Albrighton fired narrowly wide from 20 yards, while Bent saw another attempt deflect past the post - but it wasn't long before the club record signing bagged a second goal.

On 36 minutes, the former Sunderland man applied the final touch after Richard Dunne glanced a header to divert Albrighton's cross towards goal.

A tight hamstring cut short Ireland's encouraging return to action but his replacement Nathan Delfouneso made an immediate impact.

The England U21 ace produced a blistering run and precise delivery to the back post. Bent's initial shot cannoned off the woodwork but Heskey emphatically slammed home the rebound.

Youth took centre stage in the second-half as McLeish shuffled his pack.

The likes of Ciaran Clark, Barry Bannan, Daniel Johnson and Graham Burke were given a run-out along with veteran keeper Andy Marshall.

Delfouneso continued to tear holes in the Saddlers defence and was unfortunate not to get a goal for his efforts.

Almost straight from the restart, he outstripped a home defender and rounded replacement keeper David Grof before shooting wide from a tight angle.

He found himself in a similar position moments later but Grof remained strong to thwart the striker.

The closest Villa came to adding to the scoreline was Johnson's thunderous 54th minute strike which ricocheted off the bar.

Just as Given enjoyed a trouble-free first 45 minutes, Marshall remained largely untroubled after the break.

But the experienced custodian was beaten 10 minutes from time when George Bowerman converted a towering header. And Marshall made a sprawling two-handed save in the closing stages to beat away a 25-yard thunderbolt from Richard Taundry.

Overall, McLeish will have been delighted with the tempo and the panache shown by his team in their first pre-season outing.

WALSALL: Walker, Sadler, Lancashire, Smith, Chambers, Jarvis, Macken, Hurst, Beevers, Taundry, Gnakpa. Subs: Westlake, Butler, Grigg, Paterson, Nicholls, Bowerman, Peterlin, Jones, Grof, Deards, Butlin, Forde.

VILLA: Given, Young, Dunne, Collins, Warnock, Albrighton, Petrov, Makoun, Ireland, Bent, Heskey. Subs: Marshall, Parish, Beye [for Young, HT], Clark [for Collins, HT], Herd [for Petrov, 76], Lowry [Lowry, 60], Lichaj [for Dunne, 65], Bannan [for Bent, HT], Delfouneso [for Ireland, 35], Cameron [for Albrighton, 76], Burke [for Heskey, 55], Nelson-Addy, Johnson [for Makoun, HT].

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