LEICESTER 2 - SAINTS 2

First published in 03-04 Season Daily Echo: Photograph of the Author by , Chief Sports Writer

Premiership openers can sometimes be a bit dull.

Both teams are finding their feet, new players try to gel together and it feels more like sparring than an actual match.

Well, not at the Walkers Stadium.

There were great goals, penalties, controversy, a brilliant fight back, crunching tackles and, best of all, an atmosphere that made you feel great to be back in the cut and thrust of the football season.

It's never easy to face a newly promoted team on the opening day of the campaign - especially at their ground.

The mood is euphoric, the supporters go crazy and the players are well up for it.

For half an hour on Saturday that was too much for Saints, but when it came down to it they had the Premiership experience on their side - and a certain Kevin Phillips.

As far as debuts go, it was quite remarkable and the £3.25m man has now set a benchmark for himself and the rest of the team.

Last season's achievements by Saints were magnificent but, in this league, if you stand still you go backwards.

The signing of Phillips is a massive leap forward, a statement of genuine ambition and, above all else, highly exciting.

Many were already salivating before the match at the prospect of a potential Phillips-Beattie partnership after the latter's remarkable campaign last year and the former's awesome big man-little man pairing with Niall Quinn at Sunderland.

Well, if there was any Saints fan anywhere not excited before Saturday they damn well should be now.

It can be easy to get carried away - after all, it's only two goals in 45 minutes! But wow, wow, wow - this could be good. Without doubt, the half- time introduction of Phillips swung the pendulum in Saints' favour.

Leicester, with their own new striker Les Ferdinand on display, had taken control of the early stages as they celebrated being back in the Premiership with two goals in the first ten minutes.

There were certainly helped with the first one by referee Mike Riley, who had a truly awful game.

On four minutes Ferdinand leapt for a header in the penalty area and on the way down brushed past the arm of Michael Svensson, who hadn't been allowed to get too far off the ground.

To the surprise of everyone in the stadium - including Ferdinand - Riley awarded a penalty which Paul Dickov tucked away.

Just five minutes later a long ball from Ian Walker cleared the Saints defence and James Scowcroft slid on the by-line to hook in a high cross.

Ferdinand charged in and powered through Svensson and Claus Lundekvam - who was stretchered off as a result - and forced his header home from four yards off of Paul Jones' fingertips and the underside of the bar.

Leicester continued to be in control for a while but with about 30 minutes gone Saints got a grip of the game and Walker did well to keep out Beattie from close range.

But the game changed dramatically at half-time when Phillips replaced Anders Svensson in attack.

Immediately things started to happen.

He went close himself three times, as did Beattie, and it was hard to believe that Phillips hadn't played a single pre-season match.

In fairness, that shows his class - and if there was any doubting that then his goal proves he still has it.

On 76 minutes Beattie played the ball infield to Phillips, who had his back to goal.

He turned and manoeuvred room to the left-hand side of Matt Elliott before releasing a fierce 25-yard screamer which rocketed into the top corner. Breathtaking.

Then, just four minutes later and having survived a big shout for handball in the area, Jason Dodd's cross from the right was flicked on by Beattie for Phillips, who controlled and span before releasing a shot that hit the far post.

Beattie was as alert as ever and slammed home the follow-up with his left foot.

There was a late scare when Scowcroft's header hit the post, but a draw was a fair result.

Far from the opening day nerves usually reserved for these occasions, Saints, Leicester, Beattie and Phillips served up a real treat - it could be a great nine months.

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