Walsall 1 - Albion 2

Gus Poyet is really beginning to make his mark as Albion manager.

His philosophy is simple. He wants genuine competition in every position between two players and, in a few cases, three.

The message to those on the fringes of Albion’s fifth away win out of seven in all competitions is just as clear.

You will get a chance at some stage. Injuries, suspensions, a hectic fixture list or somebody letting their standards slip will see to that. And when that chance comes it is up to you to grab it.

The business Poyet has done already in the January transfer window has upped the stakes, particularly in defence, which has so far this season been Albion’s biggest weakness.

Why else are they at the wrong end of the table when they have a 24-goal strike partnership?

Poyet had key decisions to make in all departments of the team at Walsall. Giving debuts at full-back to Inigo Calderon and Marcos Painter, at the expense of Gavin Hoyte and Jimmy McNulty, was a big call.

Albion had, after all, kept a clean sheet in their previous outing at Torquay in the FA Cup. Added to that, Calderon and Painter have only just arrived, at a time when training has been thrown into disarray by the recent bad weather.

Poyet also had to pick two from three in the centre of defence after resting Tommy Elphick at Torquay, where Adam Virgo and James Tunnicliffe combined soundly.

He plumped for Elphick and Virgo and in midfield restored Elliott Bennett and Alan Navarro, Liam Dickinson and Dean Cox giving way.

Relying on Nicky Forster and Glenn Murray up front was rough on Liam Dickinson, following the part he played in the three-pronged attack at Torquay but every choice Poyet made was justified by the result and the manner in which it was achieved.

He said: “It was a tough decision, because Liam Dickinson was great in the last two games he played for us against Leyton Orient and Torquay but you have to make decisions as a manager.

“I decided to play with two and it worked. Liam is not going to be happy all week but I like that. It was also difficult to leave Gavin Hoyte out of the squad.

“I have no problem with any of the players getting really upset with the manager but only with the manager, because I am the one that makes those decisions.

“They cannot blame any other player, the assistant, the fitness coach, it is only me, blame me and make sure they are ready, because I am sure with the run of games we have now every single one is going to be important.”

Anyone feeling sorry for themselves should consider the character displayed by Virgo in response to what has happened to him since Poyet took charge.

He was outstanding again and preserved the points with a terrific block from a Troy Deeney shot during five minutes of stoppage time.

Poyet acknowledged: “Everybody knows how Adam Virgo was feeling for a month and a half.

“He lost the captaincy and wasn’t playing, came on in midfield at Wycombe, had the chance at Torquay and put in a great performance and now this.

“It is not that the manager is bad or wrong, it is about you proving the manager wrong and showing him you deserve to play.”

Full marks to Virgo and for Poyet too, not just for getting his selection right but being bold and brave enough to pick his more technically gifted players, like Bennett and Gary Dicker, on a very heavy pitch which passed two morning inspections.

How it paid off, particularly in the opening 25 minutes, when Bennett, Forster and Murray combined to run a rusty Walsall defence ragged on their first outing for four weeks.

They could not cope with Bennett out on the right wing in that period and they could not deal with the direct running of the voracious Forster for the 76 minutes that he was on the pitch.

Murray rounded keeper Clayton Ince from a pinpoint pass by Bennett to give Albion an early lead.

They were well on top and it was totally against the run of play when ex-Seagull Matt Richards, used as a left-sided midfielder by Walsall, made room for himself to rifle in an angled drive which Michel Kuipers would normally have expected to save.

The hosts were suddenly, but as it transpired fleetingly, a different side, finding their feet after five successive postponements.

Equality lasted only 11 minutes. Albion were a threat from Bennett’s corners all afternoon and, when Walsall failed to clear one of them, Elphick headed towards the far post for Forster, with his back to goal, to find the net with a stunning volley over his shoulder.

The second half was a lot less eventful as Albion stoutly retained their advantage to complete a hat-trick of victories, all away from home.

Both the pitch and opposition will be much better on Saturday but Forster and Murray especially will have given watching Aston Villa manager Martin O’Neill food for thought.

Albion (4-4-2): Kuipers; Calderon, Virgo, Elphick, Painter; Bennett, Navarro, Dicker, Crofts; Murray, Forster (Dickinson 76). Subs not used: McNulty, Cox, Tunnicliffe, Hart, Carole, Brezovan.

Goals: Murray (8), Forster (37).

Yellow cards: Elphick (44) foul, Calderon (85) foul.

Walsall (4-4-2): Ince; Westlake, Hughes, Smith, Sansara; Till (Parkin 69), Bradley (O’Keefe 69), Mattis, Richards; Byfield, Deeney. Subs not used: Nicholls, Taundry, Vincent, McDonald, Gilmartin.

Goals: Richards (26).

Yellow cards: None.