Walsall 1-2 Bolton Wanderers
Walsall Under-18s suffered their first defeat of the season as Bolton Wanderers ran out 2-1 winners at Birmingham County FA Headquarters.
An early header from Lamine Toure put the visitors ahead as Young Saddlers failed to show why they had gone unbeaten in the EFL Youth Alliance up to this point, before an improved second half saw Ben Dallaywaters equalise from the penalty spot.
Miguel Llera’s side pushed hard for a winner in the pouring rain and even had a Romani Stephens goal ruled out for offside, but it was heartbreak at the death when Kian Le Fondre pounced on Lewis Walker’s goalkeeping error to snatch three points.
Bolton’s transport troubles delayed the game’s kick off by an hour, however it was the home side who stalled as the game got underway.
Walsall looked unlike the well-organised, high-pressing regiment that had been on display so far this season as Bolton forced Young Saddlers into errors. Joe Perry was booked for felling Finley Lockett after three minutes when the Wanderers’ midfielder pinched the ball and Mitchell Henry was a menace to Brad Taylor on the right flank in the opening stages.
Henry had two identical chances in two minutes when he ran through on Walker’s goal; the first was saved smartly and the second slid wide of the far post – both were a let-off for Walsall.
Bolton’s pressure stood firm and soon they were ahead. Lockett’s whipped free kick dropped precisely at the back post where Toure peeled off to head low into the corner of Walker’s net.
It took a Bolton goal to jumpstart Young Saddlers’ game. Saif Mukadam and Jayden Campbell had their first influence from the wing and manufactured a chance for the midfield.
Stephens ran through on goal when Walsall’s high press finally buckled the Bolton backline. Striking low and left-footed, the midfielder forced Luke Hutchinson into a sharp save with his legs.
Young Saddlers were a little lucky to reach the interval at only one goal down, owing their fortune to strong Lewis Walker goalkeeping and wasted Bolton opportunities.
Llera ensured his team knew the first half was a long way below the standard he has come to expect at Walsall this season in his vociferous team talk and made one change as Dallaywaters came on for Perry.
Walsall listened, responded and got on top of the visitors.
Mukadam and Troy Perez-Duah linked up to play an overlapping Taylor in behind the Wanderers’ defence where goal scorer Toure flew in with an overzealous challenge.
The referee adjudged the tackle as a penalty and substitute Dallaywaters did the honours, opening his body and placing sweetly to give him his second goal of the season.
With 15 minutes remaining it looked as if Walsall would plough on and wrap the game up and it seemed they had when Stephens smashed home from 20-yards.
Campbell and Kyle Sharp worked hard and neatly to create an opening for Stephens on the edge of the box. The midfielder laced his shot through some bodies and wheeled away celebrating as the ball nestled in the corner.
Celebrations were short lived as the linesman’s flag went up for offside from a perceived touch off Sharp – unfortunate for Stephens and Young Saddlers who had done so well to fight back.
A game that had an unnerving edge to every Bolton attack took a decisive twist as the game ticked over into stoppage time.
Walker dashed to dive on Lockett’s cross when the ball squirmed out of his grasp in the sodden conditions. Le Fondre collected the ball and placed it around the scrambling Walsall defenders to take the points back to Lancashire.
Head coach Llera was deeply frustrated with a team performance that must be learnt from:
“I’m disappointed, annoyed [and] angry.
“I didn’t see my team with the same commitment, energy and desire that I’m used to. They should be starting the game like they did in the second half.
“We are in a teaching environment, the positive is that you need to have that kind of stuff happen to learn.
“We need to create players that can manage those kinds of situations.
“It wasn’t good enough and we have to tell them. We are proud when they do it right and we have to tell the truth when they do it wrong.”