On the whistle report from Meadow Lane…
THE Saddlers continued their pre-season preparations with an entertaining 3-2 defeat to Notts County on Tuesday evening.
First half goals from defender Hayden Hollis and Jonathan Forde put the hosts ahead at the break before further strikes from Jon Stead and two from Amadou Bakayoko completing the scoring.
At one stage, Whitney's men found themselves three goals down to the League Two outfit but rallied in the second half to make the friendly a much closer contest.
Franck Moussa and Simeon Jackson were given their second starts in as many games as the squad step up efforts to reach the necessary fitness levels with the season opener just ten days away.
Set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, Whitney's men began brightly, moving the ball well on what was a greasy surface. It could have been the perfect start for the visitors had Simeon Jackson not lifted the ball a foot over the bar. The former Norwich frontman evaded the off-side trap perfectly but could only lift the ball on to the roof of the net, over an outstretched Adam Collin in goal.
The first meaningful strike from the hosts came moments later courtesy of veteran striker Jon Stead. The 33-year old striker used all his experience to create a yard of space on the edge of the box, before forcing Neil Etheridge to a relatively comfortable save away to his right. A cleanly struck effort but a nice height for the Walsall stopper.
Moments later, Jonathan Forte showed a neat touch deep inside Walsall territory to control the ball and turn a cross into the box. Elliott Hewitt was the grateful target but he couldn't generate enough power on the header to cause Etheridge any trouble.
Then came the defining minute of the half. Two goals in the space of 60 seconds for the hosts.
First, an inviting free kick from the right found the foot of Haydn Hollis, four yards out at the back post, to volley home. The inquest had barely begun before Notts doubled their lead.
An unfortunate slip by Jason McCarthy saw Jonathan Forde race clear unopposed before sliding the ball across goal and into the bottom corner.
Shellshocked, Whitney's men regained their composure before setting about trying to reduce the deficit. Having featured for the Saddlers for the first time just three days ago, Franck Moussa was looking a threat around the 18-yard box. The talented midfielder protected the ball away from Stanley Aborah in the midfield area before shifting it onto his left-foot and curling an effort wide.
He was again involved in the action moments later, this time turning provider for Simeon Jackson. A defensive error in the Notts defence saw Moussa pick up the loose ball and fire it into Jackson with urgency. Despite a neat first touch, the Saddlers striker could only find the palms of Collin in goal with a curling shot.
Stead's 12 goals for Notts County last season was a rare bright spark in a mediocre season at Meadow Lane and on the 35 minute mark he showed glimpses of the man who reached the highest level at his peak. Facing the corner flag, he showed great trickery to leave James O'Connor for dead before drilling the ball across the six yard box. Etheridge got a touch on the fizzing cross but it was left to Joe Edwards to hack clear.
The Saddlers were made to wait until two minutes before the break to fashion our best chance of the half. Kieron Morris found Simeon Jackson with a lofted through ball. Playing on the shoulder of the defender, Jackson's first touch was good enough to see him fire an effort across goal only for Collin to beat it away to his right.
HALF TIME: NOTTS COUNTY 2-0 WALSALL
The Saddlers reverted to a 4-4-2 formation for the second period with Amadou Bakayoko replacing Franck Moussa in the Walsall attack, a move which would soon pay dividends.
But it was Kieron Morris who looked to take the initiative for the visitors, latching onto a loose header in the County back line five minutes in to the second period and driving at the two centre halves. After shifting the ball onto his favoured left foot, the tricky winger hit a rasping effort goal wards but was straight at the keeper.
An already greasy surface was made quicker by a light downpour in Nottingham but it wasn't quick enough to prevent Adam Collin from pouncing on a dangerous Bakayoko Cross on the hour mark.
The chance marked a lull in the game with both teams catching their breath after a lively opening 60 minutes which will have pleased both Jon Whitney and County boss John Sheriden in their respective dug-outs. The intensity of the game could have been interrupted by the flurry of changes made by both sides but nobody told Jon Stead who soon after added his first and County's third goal of the match.
An inch perfect through ball split the two Saddlers centre halves and Stead, who didn't have to break stride, calmly dinked the ball over the onrushing Etheridge to put the game out of Walsall's reach. Or so we thought.
Heading into the game Amadou Bakayoko had accumulated a pre-season goal tally of 3 goals in 2 games, all coming from the penalty spot. That was, at least, before he reduced the defect on the night to two goals when he headed home a delightful George Dobson cross on 72 minutes.
The Saddlers continued to pick and probe their way forwards in the hunt for a second and duly got it with five minutes of the game to go.
Rico Henry left his marker for dead with some dazzling skills out on the left before hitting the byline to whip a dangerous cross into the box. Collin could only bat the ball into on coming traffic in the form of Amadou Bakayoko who fired in his second of the evening and fifth goal in three games.
With the clock ticking down the Saddlers pushed for an equaliser but couldn't muster a blockbuster finish with the hosts edging this one 3-2.
STARTING XI: Etheridge, Edwards, McCarthy, O'Connor, Henry, Chambers, Cuvelier, Morris, Moussa, Kouhyar, Jackson
SUBS: McGillivray, Dobson, Osbourne, Butterfield, Kinsella, Shorrock, K.Roberts, Sangha, Cockerill-Mollett, Oztumer, Preston