Walsall Under-18s began 2019 with a 2-0 home defeat to second placed Rochdale in the Youth Alliance.
The young Saddlers shaded the first half in a competitive encounter, but two second half strikes from Lewis Bradley and Morgan Moreland gave the Greater Manchester outfit all three points.
Without first team graduate Alfie Bates and top goal-scorer Alex McSkeane – who was side-lined with glandular fever this week – facing the defending league champions was an inevitably tough task, especially considering Dale thrashed high-flyers Blackpool 6-2 last time out.
Rochdale carved out several early chances, drawing Ethan Dawe into action with some smart saves. He showed no signs of a New Year hangover and astutely kept Walsall level.
After a quarter-of-an-hour, the Saddlers got a foothold in the fixture and found their first opportunity to target Brad Wade’s opposing goal.
A defensive clearance dropped short to Joe Willis 25-yards out. He struck cleanly, but the shot took a slight deflection that forced it mercifully past the post for a corner.
For the remainder of the half, Walsall were the better team, acquitting themselves capably against the title holders.
Sam Perry carried the ball excellently on numerous occasions, running through Rochdale tackles from deep in Walsall territory to turn defence into attack.
Even during Walsall’s strongest spell, a poignant reminder of Rochdale’s attacking muscle came at 35 minutes when a long-range effort had to be acrobatically dealt with by Dawe.
Just before half-time, the Saddlers were presented with perhaps the best chance of the half. Joe Brown picked the pocket of Dale full-back Ben Martin on the halfway line, leaving himself and Kian Flanagan with one defender to negotiate.
Brown was shepherded wide by the defender and his ball to Flanagan was tantalisingly out of reach.
A minute later, Owen Nolan’s goal-bound volley was blocked away when Tyreece Ruddock picked him out inside the penalty area.
The second half began in the same vein as the first with Dawe making a fine double save to deny Dale early on.
On 53 minutes however, Walsall’s resistance was broken. Having defended well until this point, it was disappointing for Graham Biggs’ side to lose concentration and concede.
The ball looped to Harrison Hopper from a throw, he turned Sam Leivesly and crossed from the by-line. An outstretched Walsall leg bobbled the ball over Dawe for Bradley to tap home from three yards.
Although a goal down, the young Saddlers side showed real determination in hunting an equaliser. Attacks came and went but the best chance of the match fell to Ruddock on 70 minutes.
His pace troubled Rochdale defenders throughout and once again he latched onto a long ball to the right channel. Ruddock stormed through and should have troubled Wade, but his strike went agonisingly wide of the upright.
That proved the golden opportunity for Walsall.
On 84 minutes, the game was taken beyond reach by Rochdale. Bradley turned provider when his high cross dropped over the head of Luke Little at the back post for Moreland to power home.
Despite the result, boss Biggs was pleased with his side’s tenacity throughout the game.
“I cannot criticise their effort, work-rate and desire in the game,” said Biggs.
“The first half I thought we matched Rochdale. They are a very strong and well-run academy and I thought we competed.
“When they scored, I thought we didn’t give up, our heads didn’t drop.
“We had a couple of really good chances without properly testing the keeper and then they hit us with a sucker [punch].”
He gave further individual praise to midfielder, Sam Perry, who had recently returned from a long-term injury.
“I thought Sam was excellent, he covered every blade of grass and was all over the pitch.”
He also spoke about the pleasure of Alfie Bates’ progression to Dean Keates’ side.
“The result today will hurt for a few days,” Biggs added. “But when you reflect on how the whole academy, the youth team is actually run for producing first team players, for us to lose Alfie Bates to the first team is absolutely fabulous.”
“We’re here to ultimately produce players and obviously we have done that with Alfie and hopefully we will produce a few more.”