Pictures and analysis of Doncaster 1 Walsall 2

There is always one team to emerge from the pack, one that slips under the radar. 

There is always one team to emerge from the pack, one that slips under the radar.

And after a blistering start to 2013 and victory at the joint-leaders, why not Walsall?

Saturday’s 2-1 win at Doncaster was the Saddlers’ eighth victory in 10 games since ending that 16-game winless streak.

It kept them ninth, four points from the top six, and preserved their tag as the country’s form team. One more win will hit the 50-point survival target set at the start of the season and then ambitions will quietly shift.

Andy Taylor insisted afterwards the players were not “taking themselves too seriously” in terms of making the play-offs.

That in itself is a good sign, the relaxed nature of the squad will undoubtedly help when the pressure starts to build.

But should they emerge unbeaten from games with promotion contenders Notts County and Brentford in their next two outings they will have to get serious.

The three matches – Doncaster, County and Brentford – were always going to be the test of the Saddlers’ credentials and staying power; a trio of clubs battling for the play-offs and promotion against Walsall, who are in such good form. And they passed their first test with the kind of grit and panache associated with sides who can last the pace.

They are still outsiders – others have games in hand and the financial clout to make the difference – but there is a case to be made. They will soon emerge from under the radar should the form continue and expectation will rise from outside of the group. It is then where different pressures impact and, while they have dealt with the problems at the bottom, it remains to be seen if the young squad can cope with the added strains at the top. Thoughts of relegation were banished weeks ago and boss Dean Smith must now deal with this situation.

It continues to be a testament to the manager’s approach which never faltered while panic and unfair criticism emanated from the stands during the difficult autumn months. This time, though, the 480 travellers chanted ‘we are staying up’ at least three months earlier than they are used to.

Smith deserves their support and there will be some sheepish looks from those who bizarrely felt a change was needed earlier in the season. The manager remains level-headed but after six wins from seven games this year he deserves the credit.

And fortune favours the brave. Smith’s decision to throw on Craig Westcarr for extra presence up front in the second half changed the game. Since scoring after just 70 seconds through Andy Butler’s close-range header Walsall had been under pressure.

Billy Paynter’s 16th minute leveller – from an offside position after Chris Brown’s knockdown – had hauled Rovers back into the game and they forced Walsall back.

Taylor’s free-kick and Febian Brandy’s volley aside, the Saddlers struggled to assert themselves against a side who could have gone clear at the top with victory.

Defensively, though, they excelled with Butler outstanding and Paul Downing growing with every game, proving why he signed a new deal last week. When they were breached Ian McLoughlin saved David Cotterill’s free-kick immediately after the break as Rovers threatened before the tide turned.

The Saddlers were holding firm but Westcarr’s introduction offered an outlet and allowed Febian Brandy and Jamie Paterson to flourish. Suddenly, Doncaster couldn’t deal with the duo as Westcarr, who is yet to score for the Saddlers, became the focal point. He was introduced after Cotterill hit the bar and Rob Jones missed the rebound but it was Rovers’ last serious chance.

The exceptional Sam Mantom and Adam Chambers snapped at Rovers as they took the advantage in the middle and began to boss the game. Paterson, who became increasingly influential, and Taylor fired off-target while Mantom was twice denied by Gary Woods. But it was left to Brandy to seal it nine minutes from time when he bamboozled two defenders, jinked into the area and rifled past Woods at the near post.

They can’t, can they?

By Nick Mashiter