Walsall Under-18s rounded off their EFL Youth Alliance season with a hard-fought 1-1 draw at Montgomery Waters Meadow.
Young Saddlers looked to have all three points secured after Jayden Campbell’s coolly taken penalty until Shrewsbury substitute Jenson Cooper struck to salvage a point with seconds to spare.
It was a very feisty encounter – even after the final whistle – where tempers boiled over into a full squad scuffle.
Goalkeepers went largely untested in the opening stages as the game in front of them erupted into overzealous tackles and off-the-ball handbags.
The frantic nature of play rubbed off onto Shrewsbury defenders when Ben Crompton dithered, allowing Tommy Parker to pinch the ball with his tenacious hounding.
Saif Mukadam ran through with the ball and sized up Reece Thompson’s goal, trying to place the shot to the goalkeeper’s left.
It was the best chance in what had been a scrappy first half, but Thompson was equal to it and saved his centre back’s blushes with an outstretched leg.
At the other end, Lewis Walker did not have a save to make in the first half, despite Jamie Spiers ringing off a few warning shots from range.
With more yellow cards than shots on target going into the second half, Miguel Llera had to calm his players down to bring the fixture under control.
Walsall needed to show the maturity that progressing from the Under-18s requires and as the game wore on it looked as if Young Saddlers had come of age.
By winning individual battles and allowing Shrewsbury players’ frustrations to build, Walsall grabbed hold of the game with some lovely interplay down the left flank between Jack Lynch, Joe Foulkes and Campbell.
Campbell in particular was playing with a big smile on his face as he stood up defenders and sat them down with electric body feints and close dribbling.
Before long, his excellent work paid dividends when he went around Nana Owusu-Gyimah and was chopped down by the full back, winning a penalty.
The winger stepped up and sent Thompson the wrong way to give Young Saddlers the lead.
No fewer than nine teammates dashed to the corner flag for a perfectly executed group knee slide celebration, knowing that for some this could be the last chance to share a moment of joy before contract decisions are finalised.
Young Saddlers remained on top and in control until the frantic final moments when the ball dropped to Cooper in the box who smashed home through Walker’s legs.
The whistle blew just seconds later before players and coaching staff were caught up separating a serious incident and claims of a punch that left Ben Dallaywaters with a bloodied nose.
Eventually, players were pulled away and Llera reflected on a tough final game of the season:
“In the first half I think they were more aggressive than us, more ready to compete.
“We changed the formation, that helped in the second half. We made it two centre midfielders in front of the back four.
“We started to dominate the game. We were more aggressive in the second half, that’s why we got the goal. We were miles the better team.
“It was a happy moment in the game when you score in a big pitch and this environment. This is the moment I always enjoy – seeing the lads happy.
“I’m disappointed how we conceded the goal in the last minute of the game but it’s not the first time that’s happened. We could’ve defended it better.
“Everything that happened after the game was a consequence of the decisions made over the 90 minutes. My player [Dallaywaters] was [suffering] with a nosebleed. He says the striker punched him in the face, we will see because we have the camera.”