All Walsall can do with their worst FA Cup moment for eight years is make sure it is the bottom of the trough.
A Saddlers season filled with optimism and blossoming excitement but a month or so ago descended to fresh levels of despair as the money-spinning competition was shut down to them by non-league outfit Lincoln City at The Banks’s Stadium.
Dean Smith’s dressing room was left devastated by the defeat in extra-time on a night when they hoped to mark their manager’s 100th game in charge by ending a search for victory which is now extended to 11 games.
They have been hit by injuries and a sliding confidence but still should have had enough to get past this level of opposition.
Dave Holdsworth’s team are certainly stronger than the Slough side which knocked out Paul Merson’s Walsall in this competition in 2004. Lincoln were tough, fit, well-organised, highly-motivated and in Vadaine Oliver had the game’s most effective and troublesome substitute.
But they were also fairly limited and while they scored on each of their three efforts on target, Walsall allowed a series of opportunities to seize control to elude them. Indecision, a lack of conviction and draining confidence are all feeding off each other plunging Smith and his players into a real challenge of their mettle.
Like all teams in the grip of such a malaise, the Saddlers will feel they cannot catch a break as a contentious first goal from Lincoln symbolised.
But football only ever helps those who help themselves and Walsall’s young players alone can rescue a season in danger of disappearing into the kind of crisis the club thought it had left behind.
Worryingly, their public is again finding it hard to back them. An attendance of just 1,764 included 348 from Lincoln – meaning less than 1,500 Walsall fans could be tempted from their firesides for this replay.
The Saddlers were as bad as they have been all season in a forgettable first half which exposed their edginess and only encouraged Lincoln’s belief that this was a tie they could still conquer.
A couple of chances, one saved by Paul Farman from George Bowerman’s right-foot drive, and the other skewed wide by Jamie Paterson, were all they could muster.
And when the sharpest player on the pitch, Febian Brandy, started the second half going close twice, Walsall registered a higher tempo and a return to their more measured game to encourage hopes of victory.
But then a calamity. A clip over the left-hand side by Tom Miller found Alan Power running clear from what could only have been – Smith reckoned play-backs eventually proved it – an offside position. However, the flag remained unused and a fine finish gave Lincoln a 50th minute lead.
As Walsall poured forward with increasing desperation, deeper and deeper went Lincoln’s defence which was within 10 minutes of holding out when one more darting run by Paterson produced a half-cleared cross Richard Taundry dispatched from the edge of the area into the bottom left hand corner.
Walsall still backed themselves to take the tie in the extra half-hour but when Adam Chambers began it by volleying over another half-chance, you began to wonder what price they would pay.
Sure enough, a rare Lincoln corner moments later savaged their brittle confidence. Oliver, an 80th- minute arrival, produced a huge leap to meet Power’s cross and find the far corner.
Although the night would finish with Paterson scoring off a big deflection in the final seconds, Lincoln had clinched the tie by then when the powerful Oliver pounced on uncertainty between James Chambers and David Grof to score a third.
Walsall: Grof, J Chambers, Holden, Butler, Benning, Taundry (Jones 111), Featherstone, A Chambers, Paterson, Brandy (Hemmings 79), Bowerman (Williams 71). Subs not used: George, Downing, Walker, Baxendale.
Lincoln: Farman, Gray (Bore 85), Boyce, Miller, Gilbert, Mills, Fofana, Sheridan, Smith (Oliver 80), Power (Nutter 111), Taylor. Subs not used: Taylor, Larkin, Robinson, Turner.
Referee: Graham Scott (Oxfordshire)
By Martin Swain