Saddlers energised for test at Stevenage
Dean Smith and Richard O'Kelly know they will discover tonight just how much juice Walsall's sparkling start to the season has put into the team's battery.
The boss and his trusted first lieutenant watched over their charges from the Fratton Park technical area on Saturday like proud dads as the Saddlers gave themselves another charge of confidence with a 2-1 victory.
Both men know that it is ridiculously early to see the five-game unbeaten run and place among the top six as a barometer for the rest of the campaign.
But what the unexpectedly up-beat start has done is inject belief into a young and untried team and help convince them they can thrive at a level sure to test stamina as much as skill.
With perfect timing, they face Stevenage tonight – one of the teams we can expect to figure prominently in League One's challenge for promotion, as Smith concedes.
"Yes, this will be a different challenge again," he said, with Adam Chambers and Febian Brandy close to a return after hamstring injuries. "They are a tough side with some top players at this level. But I am hoping our boys can go there with confidence in their own capabilities now – they should do. That said, we are aware of their threats and are making people sit up and take notice of what we are doing. We are looking forward to the game.
"We have an unbeaten away record and we want to preserve that. Why not? We have players who can always cause teams problems..."
Smith knows they still have to learn quickly if they are to fully capitalise on the start – especially in front of goal where more ruthlessness is required to reward the Saddlers' bright, enterprising passing football.
"I thought we missed a few chances in the first half at Portsmouth," he said. "True, the keeper made a really good save from Jamie Paterson and George Bowerman missed a good chance – there were also a few shots high and wide.
"But someone like George chases lost causes for us. At times it's tough up there on your own and it can become a thankless task, but he works his socks off, had chances and he will mature well.
"We won with two fantastic strikes but that's not always going to happen. I'm pleased for James Baxendale, though.
"It's only his second full start for the club and he did really well in that role. It was a bit harsh on Will Grigg, who came back off international duty and hasn't been able to get in the team. But I thought our ball retention was very good with players like Cuvelier, Paterson, Featherstone and Hemmings, Bowerman and Grigg, they will always keep the ball for us. That is how we want to play."
Baxendale left Fratton buzzing with excitement after his first and spectacular goal for the club but talking about the confidence that Smith and O'Kelly knows is so vital to Walsall's self-conviction.
"We've got the squad here to cope with players missing if necessary," he said. "Everyone knows their job and what is expected of them. I think it's a really good squad.
"The spirit here is fantastic and we are working hard both on and off the ball. There's a buzz around the training ground and it's a good place to be right now.
"It's all about what we do and if we're at it , there is no reason why we can't come home with another three points."
Despite the clear threats posed by Stevenage, an oddity of the campaign so far is their failure to win at home. On Saturday, they were two down against Crewe before they had got started and only really gathered the momentum to save the game when the visitors were reduced to 10 men.
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