Walsall Ladies continued their upturn in form and showed their fighting spirit to pick up their first win of the season with a 3-2 victory over Port Vale Ladies at Dales Lane last Sunday.
The Saddlers returned to the pitch after a lengthy spell on the sidelines due to recent lockdown restrictions and were looking to build on their impressive display on the road in their previous fixture, a 4-4 draw with Coventry City Ladies which saw the Ladies pick up their first points of the season. Saddlers manager Donna Ash had added Jo Sheerin to her management team as joint first-team manager in recent weeks and both were looking for another positive result on home soil.
Having not played for seven weeks, both sides could be forgiven for showing a little bit of rustiness at the beginning of this game, but right from the start the energy from the Saddlers was clear with the frontline of Georgia Cox and Jasmine Springer pressing from the front and forcing Vale into some defensive mistakes.
Confusion reigned in Vale’s defence just five minutes in as a long ball over the top was not dealt with and it looked as if Springer had an open goal to aim at, but the Port Vale goalkeeper recovered well after rushing out to get a hand to the goal-bound shot, pushing it behind for an early corner. From that corner, Maria Leaves rose the highest but her header looped wide of the far post, but proved that Walsall were beginning to be a danger from set pieces as well as from open play early doors.
Despite the confident start and the lack of possession for the visitors, Port Vale took an early lead after eight minutes as Mollie Garner raced through on goal and lifted the ball over Olivia Wells, who was making her debut in the Saddlers goal, and into the net - an early setback for the Ladies who knew they needed to show character and resilience to find their way back in the game; something that they showed in abundance against Coventry City.
A feature of Walsall’s play was looking for the pace of Cox and Springer in behind the high line of the visitors’ defence with long balls from defence. Esme Gee, alongside captain Abi Turner at centre half, was the one looking the most likely to create an opening with her right foot opening up the Vale defence time and time again.
Five minutes after the goal, Cox was looking to latch onto one of Gee’s through balls and after holding off the defender, she managed to get a shot away but fired just wide of the post from the edge of the box. It was evident that those balls over the top were the way forward and with 25 minutes on the clock, from a free kick 15 yards inside her own half, Gee played one of the passes of the season as her perfectly weighted ball split the Vale defence apart and fell to Cox on the left-hand side of the penalty area. With the goalkeeper rushing out to meet her, Cox had the awareness to lift it over her and as it rolled into the gaping net, all of the appreciation went to Gee for her vision and quality to set up the equaliser.
Just a couple of minutes after the equaliser Cox was played through by her strike partner Springer, but an early strike from a tight angle was always drifting wide of the far post and caused no trouble for the Port Vale goalkeeper this time around.
Another bright spark in the Walsall attack was Aaliyah Shearer who was playing on the right side of a midfield four. She used her pace and quick-thinking to her benefit throughout the match and on the half hour mark, her fleet-footedness and awareness saw a few quick passes interchanged between her and Cox on the right touchline. This exchange led to Cox putting Shearer through down the right and in a prime position to cross, but her delivery evaded everyone and the keeper managed to hold onto it comfortably.
Although all of the pressure was coming from the Saddlers, Vale still possessed dangerous players going forward and they restored their lead against the run of play in the 35th minute. A miss-hit effort from 25 yards out looped up, bounced off the crossbar and hit Wells’ back as it came back down and spun over the line.
On another day, a goal of that nature after the dominance displayed from Walsall could have deflated them, but they remained confident and kept enforcing their game plan on a sometimes desperate Port Vale defence.
Moments after going behind for the second time Cox was at it again, latching onto another long-range pass but her early effort flew wide. However, it would not be long before the Gee/Cox combination would be working its magic again.
Five minutes before half time, Gee’s pinpoint long ball was again perfect for Cox to take it first time, accurately poking the ball into the bottom right corner and finally giving Walsall some parity, although they deserved more, with Port Vale having one half chance and scoring two goals.
The Saddlers went into the half time break level but in good spirits, with Ash and Sheerin’s side knowing that they were on top and confident that this was a great opportunity to gain their first win of the campaign. The difference from the previous game against Port Vale was stark though, as in October Walsall were resoundingly beaten 6-0 in the Potteries on the back of two dodgy penalties and two stunning long-range goals. A few changes in the team and the enforced break seemed to have re-energised and refocused the Saddlers and there was a determination to get the job done at Dales Lane and secure three valuable points ahead of the festive period.
An important 45 minutes for the Ladies saw them off the marks in quick fashion as they took the lead for the first time in the game in the 52nd minute. Jasmine Springer, who had worked incredibly hard all game without getting the rewards, unleashed a fierce low drive from 25 yards out that was perfectly out of reach for the Vale goalkeeper and into the bottom right corner, queue celebrations in the Saddlers dugout. A first goal for the first team for Springer was just what Ash and Sheerin wanted and the faith that the pair had put in Springer as a second centre-forward was repaid spectacularly.
Sheerin made it clear after the game that she thought goalkeeper Wells had been a “difference maker” and “absolutely brilliant” on her debut. The young keeper had previously played at Wolverhampton Wanderers and showed her quality throughout the match; not just with the saves that she made, but also in her confidence and efficiency with the ball at her feet.
She was called into action for the first time in the second half five minutes after the Ladies had gone ahead, as she pulled off an incredible point blank save to deny Vale an equaliser from a powerful low shot.
The Saddlers continued to cause problems for the Vale backline as the second half progressed. Shearer showed her quick feet and skill once again as she got to the by-line in the 67th minute, but her cross was just behind Leaves who couldn’t quite get it under control.
The last 20 minutes saw the Saddlers begin to tire and Vale grow in confidence, but Wells was not letting anything past her. First of all, she rushed out of her goal with incredible speed to smother a shot after the Valiants had got in behind Turner and Gee for the first time. Then, seconds later, she got down low to her left to block a fierce drive from a tight angle and parried it out of harm's way.
With the game reaching its conclusion and swinging in the balance, the Saddlers were doing all they can to hold on and potentially grab another goal. With ten minutes to go, the Ladies skewered a chance to all but seal the points. After a free-kick was won right on the edge of the box, Cox stepped up and tried to out-fox the goalkeeper by going low to her side. It almost paid off for the Saddlers forward, but the Vale keeper pulled off a smart save and the ball wouldn’t sit for Shearer which would have left her with a tap-in.
As the clock seemed to tick down very slowly the Saddlers, the visitors managed to create two massive chances to equalise with seconds to go.
Firstly, Wells was called into action again as a Vale attacker was put through on goal. She seemed almost certain to score, but the outstretched right hand of the Saddlers goalkeeper not only got to the ball, but palmed it away with a strength and presence of mind that Jack Rose (Walsall FC first-team goalkeeper) would have been proud of against the same opponents the day before.
Port Vale created one last opportunity with the final attack of the match. On the left side of the box, the ball broke free and the shot looked destined for the far top corner but luckily for the Ladies, the crossbar came to their rescue as the ball dropped in front of the goal line and was cleared by Sammi Bowyer with those in green converging.
That was the last of the action as Walsall Ladies stood firm despite a flurry of pressure at the end and gained their first win of the season with a 3-2 victory over Port Vale at Dales Lane. The result lifts the Saddlers up to eighth in the league table, above Coventry City and Sandwell Ladies and just two points behind Port Vale.