It was well worth the wait for Walsall Under-18s as they won their first EFL Youth Alliance match in six months with a 3-0 romp against Rochdale.
Ade Francis used his pace to give Young Saddlers the lead just before the half-hour mark and Jayden Campbell doubled the advantage after rounding Rochdale keeper Ben Chalton only minutes later.
Francis was influential in wrapping the game up in the second half when his powerful run ended with a perfect pass to Romani Stephens who side-footed home clinically.
With only three pre-season matches to prepare the Young Saddlers for the new season, it was no wonder Rochdale looked the stronger outfit in the opening stages.
In a first competitive match since March, Walsall were spared early blushes by the interventions of the imperious Alex Morley at centre-half. His two blocks inside the first 15 minutes as well as a good save from Tommy Jackson kept the visitors at bay.
Before long, however, Walsall found their stride and reminded supporters – who watched on through the metal fencing from the car park – why their home form had been so good last campaign.
Pressing higher and quicker onto Rochdale’s touches, Miguel Llera’s side started to force mistakes and turn over the ball.
Finally on top and looking for an opening goal, Francis chased down a long clearance that flew deep over Rochdale heads. The striker hounded the ball and with his extra pace managed to squeeze between a backtracking defender and onrushing goalkeeper to flick the ball home.
Rochdale will be disappointed with how they responded after the goal as Walsall grew in dominance and secured a speedy second.
Kyle Sharp played an excellent diagonal ball from defence, dropping into the space behind the Rochdale left back. Campbell picked up the pass as the Chalton came out his goal to meet the winger. With some quick feet and a smart turn Campbell lost the ‘keeper and struck into an empty net.
Easily the finest pass of the day, Sharp ran over to celebrate and was rightly applauded by his teammates.
An impressive first half showing almost came undone shortly after the goals when Adam Cullen and Kacper Mialkowski had golden opportunities to score for Rochdale but both hit tame efforts when they should have capitalised.
With plenty still to play for after half time, the next goal would be crucial, and it fell the way of Young Saddlers early in the second period.
Francis received the ball on halfway and having beaten the Rochdale defenders for pace already he seized the chance to drive powerfully once again. Pushing the ball forward he blitzed past his man and darted into the box.
As the defender caught up with Francis he chopped inside and deceived him once more. The angle for a shot was a little too tight, but Francis saw the run of Stephens who slotted the cutback perfectly, wrong-footing Chalton.
At 3-0 the game was over as Rochdale heads dropped and Walsall were unlucky not to add more.
Luke Zona had a looping header ruled out for a tight offside from a Stephens free kick shortly after the third goal and late on substitute Dan Baldwin rattled the bar for Young Saddlers.
Head coach Miguel Llera was delighted with the display and being back at Birmingham County FA headquarters.
“I am very happy with the three goals and a clean sheet," said Llera.
“It’s been a long time, but it’s great to be back. It has been hard working from the office and not coaching.
“I cannot be mad at any mistakes today because we are still working back towards fitness.”
Llera also expressed sadness for his players who have missed some of their development and final chances to earn a professional contract during the COVID-19 lockdown.
“It [not training] will hurt the players," he continued. "If you can’t practice you cannot get better. I feel very sorry, especially for the second years who missed out.”