Walsall Under-18s were saved by a late Jayden Campbell strike as they snatched a 1-1 draw against Accrington Stanley in the EFL Youth Alliance.
Accrington had taken the lead after 12 minutes through Owen Devonport and an off-colour Young Saddlers looked unlikely to respond until Campbell jinked inside and smashed home from distance.
The last-minute equaliser stopped a run of unfortunate results for Miguel Llera’s side who have lost momentum and some confidence since last year, but now rediscovered the resilience that characterised their performances in 2020.
Captain Luke Zona shone as a commanding, battling presence in Young Saddlers’ back line, winning headers and clearing Accrington attacks in the early stages.
His absence was acutely felt when he collided hard with the pitch-side fencing, trapping and gouging his foot gruesomely on the protruding metal.
Whilst Zona received treatment, and a new, unbloodied sock, Accrington found the breakthrough when Devonport flicked home a low cross past Tommy Jackson.
A sucker punch to Young Saddlers, but in truth they looked unlikely to score during the first half as torrential hail thrashed down in Great Barr.
Ben Dalllaywaters came closest for the hosts in the first half with a ferocious 30-yard free kick that stung the hands of Louis Hood in goal.
Walsall improved in the second period, although they still presented Stanley with opportunities to kill the game off.
Warren Sung missed a big chance, striking wide after being teed up by Lewis Trickett. Minutes later, Devonport had the goal and Jackson at his mercy to bag his brace, but clattered the post, sparing Young Saddlers.
Kyle Sharp, who came on as a substitute for Walsall, showed the first signs that there could be a way back for the hosts.
He beat the very effective Accrington offside trap but could only poke his shot wide as Hood rushed out from goal.
With stoppage time ebbing away, Walsall salvaged a precious point.
Jack Lynch picked up the ball on the left flank and curled in a superb pass for Campbell. The tricky winger feinted to go down the line and took a touch to set the ball inside, giving him the option of curling to the far post or whipping into the near corner.
Campbell finished emphatically to the near post corner past a helpless Hood and left Accrington players crestfallen.
Post-match, Llera reflected on a point to build on from a moment of pure Campbell quality:
“We were lucky to score at the end, but we had bad luck last week. At least we are starting to compete for games again, the players are getting fitter, that is the most important thing.
“We will keep working.
“I can’t say that we didn’t work hard, that we didn’t show commitment or desire.
“We need to be better in possession; we were sloppy. You play the game with the ball, and we need to be better with it.
“It’s difficult conditions when it’s windy or it’s rainy; the pitch is bobbling at times but if you are going to be in the first team you have to take better decisions with the ball and that’s a fact.”
Llera also had big praise for Luke Zona’s battling attitude to play a full 90 minutes.
“His attitude has always been spot on, [he is] a fighter.
“Today he had bad luck with the nasty puncture on his laces, but he showed his character.
“I wasn’t expecting any less from him. I am proud of him. He always tries to do his best.”