The great Walsall striker debate is currently on hold – until tomorrow night at least.
A day after manager Dean Smith had once again reaffirmed his faith in the Saddlers current forward line, Romaine Sawyers and Craig Westcarr did their talking on the pitch with the goals to see off Stevenage.
Watched by Alan Buckley, the club’s all-time top scorer, they produced a pair of finishes of which ‘The Buck’ would have been proud.
Of course, should the Saddlers draw a blank at Swindon tomorrow night, the calls for Smith to sign a central striker will no doubt be reignited.
But on Saturday, the manager’s confidence looked justified and the victory has at the very least provided some respite, even though it should have been achieved by a larger margin.
That it wasn’t was down to some crucial blocks, some good saves from visiting keeper Chris Day and an error from his opposite number Richard O’Donnell which allowed Francois Zoko to poke home with 19 minutes to go to halve the deficit and ensure a nervy finale.
It wasn’t the first time the Saddlers keeper has seen a mistake punished by a goal this term and while his general command of the box has improved, this was more evidence there is still work to do.
The tension was at least lifted when Lucas Akins received a straight red for needlessly lashing out at Paul Downing as the pair tangled off the ball, much to the chagrin of Graham Westley in the Stevenage dug-out. His dismissal halted the visitors’ resurgence but in truth they deserved nothing out of the game.
The first-half performance was as good as they have produced all season with Sawyers, handed his first start, relishing his role just behind lone striker Westcarr. Sawyers is yet to start back-to-back games this season and while Smith was later coy when asked whether he will now be given a run in the team, Saturday’s performance makes it difficult to leave him out.
Not that he was the only man to impress. Westcarr had a strong game, capped off by the goal, and looked comfortable in the central role. For a player who apparently doesn’t score enough, he is on target to break the 20-goal barrier this term.
Smith opted to drop Nicky Featherstone, as he discarded a three-man midfield in favour of the 4-4-1-1 formation. It did not, however, reduce the attacking presence from the middle with Sam Mantom in particular a driving force.
Ashley Hemmings enjoyed arguably his most consistent game since the opening day win over Tranmere, and was instrumental in making the opening goal for Sawyers.
The Saddlers were once again able to count on excellent performances from their full-backs with Andy Taylor catching the eye in both halves of the pitch. Having opened his account for the club at Colchester last week, he would have made it two-in-two were it not for the reflexes of Day.
Walsall will head to Swindon tomorrow night just a point behind the top six. If the first dozen games are about establishing a platform for the rest of the season, they’ve built a mighty good one.
Westley would later blame his side’s performance on a sickness bug but had they been entirely healthy it’s doubtful they could have lived with the Saddlers in the first half.
Smith’s side were ahead inside 11 minutes when Sawyers side-footed home first time past Day from the edge the box, after Hemmings had wriggled away from David Gray on the left and sent in a perfect cross.
More should have come but it was not until 10 minutes into the second period when Westcarr doubled the lead, latching onto a James Baxendale through ball before angling a first time shot in off the far post.
It seemed the Saddlers would run riot but the deficit was halved after O’Donnell dropped Luke Freeman’s punt under pressure and Zoko fired home.
With the visitors enjoying their best period of the game, Akins then saw red for jabbing Downing in the side as they tussled, while Day denied substitute Julian Gray in stoppage time.