Preston North End 2 Walsall FC 1 - match report
Paul Downing scored a calamitous own goal and Sam Mantom was sent-off as Walsall were beaten at Preston.
The visitors fell behind in the third minute when Downing fired a backpass past keeper Richard O'Donnell and into his own net.
They levelled almost immediately through Mantom but Bailey Wright grabbed what proved to be the winner just before the half hour mark when he headed home Paul Gallagher's free-kick.
Mantom then saw red in the final ten minutes for a challenge on Joe Garner which the referee deemed dangerous.
With Peterborough losing 1-0 at Crawley, the Saddlers have slipped no further behind the top six but face the prospect of losing the influential Mantom for three games.
Dean Smith sprang something of a surprise by handing Nicky Featherstone his first start since Boxing Day as the Saddlers reverted to a three-man central midfield. Striker Michael Ngoo was the man to make way.
James Chambers was also restored to the starting line-up at right-back, with Ben Purkiss dropping to the bench.
And it was another defender, Downing, who set the scene for an incredible start to the game as he put the hosts ahead with a dreadful own goal. There seemed little danger as the centre-back as he looked to play the ball back to O'Donnell but after a moment's hesitation he proceeded to fire the ball past his own keeper, who could not recover to claw it away before it crossed the line.
But his blushes were quickly spared by Mantom, who levelled almost immediately. The midfielder's first effort was parried by Declan Rudd straight back to him and he struck the rebound low past the keeper from the edge of the box.
Craig Westcarr saw a shot deflected into the arms of Rudd as the game began to settle down, while Featherstone volleyed wide from a Milan Lalkovic ball over the top.
O'Donnell then did superbly to keep out a low Joe Garner header from Paul Gallagher's corner.
But the keeper had no chance soon after when Wright restored the home side's lead. The Saddlers had been guilty of giving away several free-kicks in useful positions and from the left-wing Gallagher swung in a right-footed delivery which Wright nodded past the keeper.
Featherstone came within inches of levelling as the half entered the final ten minutes, drilling a shot just wide of the far post after a great exchange with Mantom.
On the stroke of half-time it was O'Donnell who was called into action once more, diving to his right to turn away a powerful Keith Keane drive.
The same player had the first effort of the second half with a left-footed effort which drifted rather harmlessly wide of the post. But O'Donnell was soon called into action when he denied Davies from close range with his legs, after the striker had latched on to a through ball and cut inside.
Chances for the Saddlers were scarce and it was Keane who had the next effort for the hosts just past the hour but his shot from distance was well wide. Davies did far better with a drive the keeper was forced to tip over the bar before the visitors made a double switch as James Baxendale and Romaine Sawyers came on for Featherstone and Brandy.
Sawyers was quickly into the action as he had a shot blocked, while Davies was denied in the same fashion at the other end by Adam Chambers. He also forced O'Donnell to save his long-range free-kick while the Saddlers, for all their possession in the final third, struggled to test Rudd at the other end.
They were dealt a further blow when Mantom saw red ten minutes from time after catching Garner late, though it looked a harsh decision.
Rudd, largely untested during the second half, did superbly to tip a Baxendale long-range effort over the bar. Michael Ngoo was then inches away from meeting a Westcarr cross but it was simply not Walsall's day.
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