It was a New Year hangover for Walsall Under-18s as they were narrowly beaten 1-2 by Oldham Athletic in the EFL Youth Alliance writes Louis Mitchell.
A goal in the first minute set Young Saddlers back before Luke Pearce equalised for Miguel Llera’s side. Walsall looked the better team, but Kymani Hunter handed a penalty to the visitors before half time which was dispatched by Reece Gaskell.
Despite a host of chances including a Pearce penalty miss, a leveller somehow eluded Walsall, meaning Oldham took home the spoils. However, it was a generally positive day for the academy as captain Joe Willis and midfielder Sam Perry made the bench for Darrell Clarke in the first team’s 2-1 away win at Salford City.
Away from the successes of the academy, Young Saddlers’ first EFL Youth Alliance fixture of the decade could not have started in much worse fashion when Junior Luamba opened the scoring for The Latics after just 15 seconds.
Oldham’s big striker held off stand-in centre half Danny Coogan as the long pass dropped into a shooting position. Dominic Rogerson did well to save the first strike down to his right but could only parry and Luamba was quickest to react once again, finishing into an empty net.
After the bizarre opening 10 minutes where the home side struggled to find their passing range or composure on the ball, Jack Lynch and Alex McSkeane began to link up well on the left flank, winning a succession of corners.
Danny Coogan tested McKenzie Chapman in the Oldham net for the first time with a header, and just two minutes later, Walsall were back on terms.
McSkeane ran to the back of the six-yard box and headed down a high cross straight to the advancing Pearce who slotted in at the near post.
Walsall had found their stride and looked to have control of the game until Kymani Hunter dived in and gave away a penalty where he might have perhaps just jockeyed his opponent.
Gaskell made no mistake from the spot and sent Rogerson the wrong way to pile the pressure on Llera’s team to claw it back.
The second half began in worryingly similar fashion to the first. Oldham had a great early chance when Zak Emmerson ran through on Rogerson’s goal only for the young shot stopper to make an incredible one-on-one save, giving away just a corner.
Reclaiming their foothold in the match, Walsall pressed on and won a penalty when Luke Pearce was clattered by two Oldham defenders at once.
The striker stayed down to receive treatment but got himself up admirably to take the penalty. He was made to wait longer by the referee whilst an Oldham player was treated, and Chapman played some mind games in goal, walking out to remove the ball from the spot during the interval.
It was enough to throw Pearce off, whose low strike was saved by the legs of Chapman and cleared in a melee of defenders.
Throughout the second period, it felt as if Walsall could grab an equaliser at any moment and the best chance came in the third minute of stoppage time.
McSkeane’s corner whipped perilously into the six-yard box and would have only needed the faintest flick-on to ensure at least a point for Young Saddlers. Saif Mukadam, Pearce and substitute Ade Francis threw themselves at the ball to salvage the game but ended up distracting each other. Pearce got the final touch and his volley flew just over the crossbar as the Oldham players breathed a sigh of relief.
Llera was disappointed with the result, although he expressed his pleasure at the way his team came back:
“I can’t be happy with the performance because when you lose you are never happy.
“We started really sloppy, but we came back into the game and scored a really good goal in our best moment of the first half.
“We have to analyse why we are conceding goals in the first 10-15 minutes of a game and why we aren’t switching on from minute zero.”
Llera also reflected on the wider successes of the academy this season that have seen Willis and Perry move to first team
“The Gaffer [Darrell Clarke] wants them [Willis and Perry] in there consistently.
“I have had to think about restructuring the team without them. I’m not preparing the team with them, I am not thinking about them. For me, both of them are part of the first team.
“Obviously they are a massive loss for us, but the academy is about putting players in the first team and hopefully they can play and be consistently good.
“It means we are doing well. It is a great opportunity for them and a great opportunity for the academy.”