For most of a disappointing season, and even at times of despair, Paul Merson has continued to look on the bright side and forecast either automatic promotion or a place in the play-offs for Walsall.
But after a second successive home draw against struggling sides, with the loss of four points, the playermanager appears to have come to a more realistic conclusion and is now looking much further ahead.
?It?s teaching me things for next season when we shall be stronger and better,? he said, while admitting that keeping back-to-back clean sheets for the first time was a step in the right direction.
Even though the Saddlers have stopped the rot and gone four games unbeaten, the team is clearly nowhere near good enough to make up lost ground and reach the play-off zone. They are seven points adrift of sixth-placed Bourne-mouth who have a game in hand.
But, ever the optimist, Merson is now looking for victories over League One?s runaway leaders, Luton Town, at Kenilworth Road tomorrow night, then Bradford City at home on Saturday, to rekindle the play-off dream.
Since big Ian Roper recovered from injury and was restored to central defence, the Saddlers haven?t conceded a goal in two matches, which is a dramatic improvement after the way they had been shipping cheap goals.
It is no coincidence. Roper was outstanding on Saturday and one superbly-timed tackle denied Wade Small just when he seemed certain to put the Dons ahead in the 52nd minute.
Merson bravely stuck to the new formation which earned three points at Bristol City, which meant he and topscorer Matty Fryatt were on the bench.
The team certainly looked far less brittle with a reinforced and athletic five-man midfield but, with only Jorge Leitao as a recognised striker, they lacked real fire power up front and too many crosses were airborne and ideal for the giant Dons? defenders. Milton Keynes manager, Danny Wilson, certainly believes that size matters, judging by the height and strength of his rebuilt side.
Walsall managed one shot on target in the first half, when Darren Wrack?s effort was saved by Matt Baker, while they enjoyed a real escape when Neil Emblen appeared to take the legs of lively Izale McLeod four minutes from half -time and the referee chose not to award a penalty to the visitors.
Disappointed Dons manager Danny Wilson said: ?From where I stood, it looked a stonewall penalty and I thought Emblen had no chance of getting the ball?
Merson agreed, but added: ?Neil said he got the ball?. Very few people in the ground, however, would have complained if the referee had pointed to the spot.
Both sides had chances to win the game late on. With nine minutes left, Matty Fryatt found Leit<o, whose low drive was diverted by the diving Matt Baker and Zigor Aranalde pumped the loose ball into the side netting.
Then, with the game in stoppage time, the increasingly effective McLeod cleverly set up Ben Harding who lifted his shot high and wide from the edge of the box. Even with Merson and Fryatt on as second-half substitutes, Walsall couldn?t find a way through a powerfully built and well-drilled defence.
The player-manager thought his team lacked spark going forward and found a surprising explanation for the disappointing dis-play when he said: ?The pitch was an absolute shocker. It
should be wet and it was no advantage to us like that.
?It had not been watered but I have enough jobs, I can?t be chasing groundsmen to water the pitch.?
WALSALL (4-5-1): Murphy; Wright, Emblen, Roper, Aranalde; D Taylor, Surman (Merson, 63), Osborn (Fryatt, 55), KTaylor, Wrack; Leit"o. Subs: Coleman, Broad, Bennett. MILTON KEYNES DONS (4-4-2): Baker; Oyedele, Chorley, Pensee-Bilong, Crooks; Small (Kamara, 67), Herve (Palmer, 82), Harding, Lewington; Platt, McLeod. Subs: Smart, Edds, Rizzo.