Walsall 2 Plymouth Argyle 1 - Report and pictures
Walsall started the 2018/19 campaign in style with goals from Andy Cook and Luke Leahy seeing them secure an opening day victory against Plymouth.
In a pulsating clash at the Banks’s Stadium, the Pilgrims took the lead against the run of play when Ryan Edwards – making his first appearance since recovering from testicular cancer – fired them in front.
But debutant Cook pulled them level on the stroke of half-time after Joe Riley fouled Morgan Ferrier in the box.
Cook took the resultant penalty and while his initial strike was saved, he reacted first to fire in at the second attempt.
An outstanding Leahy free-kick saw the Saddlers grab what was a deserved lead midway through the second half.
From that point, Dean Keates side had to dig deep to hold onto the win with Nicky Devlin making a goal-line clearance and Liam Roberts making some crucial saves.
But in the end Walsall got over the line to ensure they kicked off the new season with a victory.
Boss Keates handed starts to Jack Fitzwater and Morgan Ferrier when naming his starting line-up with the duo having arrived just 24-hours earlier from Albion and Boreham Wood respectively.
Fitzwater lined up alongside Jon Guthrie at the heart of the defence while Ferrier partnered Cook up front in a 4-4-2 formation that saw Zeli Ismail and Josh Ginnelly start on the wings.
Plymouth had five debutants in their line-up including goalkeeper Matt Macey who was snapped on loan from Arsenal on Monday.
Joe Riley, Ashley Smith-Brown, Scott Wootton and Conor Grant were the others appearing for Argyle for the first time.
It meant the Pilgrims lined up in a 4-3-3 formation with Ryan Taylor the central striker and Graham Carey and Ruben Lamieras operating either side.
In what was a frantic first few minutes, both teams came close to making what would have been a dream start to the new campaign.
It was Walsall who threated first with GInnelly producing an excellent run that saw him travel with the ball from one box to the other.
He then found Ferrier in the area but Macey did well block the striker’s shot and deny him a debut goal.
Seconds later the Saddlers survived a huge scare when goalkeeper Liam Roberts switched off to allow a back-pass from Fitzwater to run under his foot.
Fortunately though, the glovesman managed to avoid embarrassment by racing back and clearing the ball from just in front of his line.
The Saddlers’ start had been so bright – they forced five corners in the opening nine minutes. But they couldn’t find that final touch.
And it was Plymouth who then threatened from a set-piece with Scott Wootton heading narrowly over following a Conor Grant delivery.
Nevertheless, it was Keates side who were on top and they should have taken the lead midway through the half after George Dobson won the ball high up the pitch.
The midfielder did well to find Cook in the box but the striker took a touch to shift the ball onto his right-foot. And that allowed Edwards to get across and block the forward’s shot.
Walsall had been bright on the ball and all organised defensively with Keates’ men keeping their shape well.
But they switched off in the 40th minute after Plymouth won a free-kick a deep free-kick – and that allowed the visitors to take the lead.
Grant whipped the ball in the box and then Edwards – making his first appearance since January after recovering from testicular cancer – escaped his marker to fire home with a smart finish.
Despite the set-back, Walsall responded instantly with Ismail hitting the byline and sending in a cross which Ferrier just failed to turn in from close range.
On the stroke of half-time though, the Saddlers got themselves deservedly on terms after Ginnelly broke before finding Ferrier in the box.
The former Boreham Wood man looked to race past Riley but the full-back hacked him to the floor with referee Andy Haines given no option but to point to the spot.
Cook stepped up to take the penalty and while his initial effort was saved, he reacted quickest to fire in the rebound.
Walsall made a change at the break with Liam Kinsella replacing skipper Adam Chambers who looked to be carrying an injury.
The Saddlers continued on the front foot after the re-start and came a whisker away from taking the lead in the 52nd minute when Fitzwater headed a Luke Leahy corner onto the bar.
Keates was forced into another change just before the hour mark when Ferrier – who had enjoyed an excellent debut – picked up a slight niggle.
He was replaced by Kieron Morris in a change that saw Ismail move up top.
Plymouth threatened next with Carey dancing past Leahy before seeing a curling strike beaten away by a diving Roberts.
Leahy then tricked his way past a defender before flashing a strike inches wide following another impressive Ginnelly run.
Moments later though Leahy did find the target with a stunning free-kick from 25-yards.
After Morris had been fouled on the edge of the box following a darting run, the former Falkirk man stood over the resulting set-play.
And he then curled a wonderful strike over the wall which curled away from Macey before nestling perfectly into the corner.
As you’d expect, Plymouth came on strong following the goal as they pressed for an equaliser with time running out.
And they thought they got one in the 82nd minute when Taylor flicked a corner towards goal only for Nicky Devlin to make a last-ditch clearance off the line.
It was a huge scare to survive but the closing stages proved just as nervous for the home crowd as Plymouth piled forward.
The Pilgrims sent a number of dangerous ball into the box with the Saddlers doing everything they could to cling on.
And they almost put the game to bed when Cook entered the box seeing a strike cannon off the post and into the arms of Macey.
Plymouth went straight up the other end with Roberts having to made a diving save to deny Carey inside four minutes of stoppage time.
There were then some heated scenes on the bench as Keates and Adams exchanged some strong words.
But while Plymouth went onto get into a number of dangerous positions, the Saddlers held on to kick off the new season with what was – overall – a deserved victory.
Walsall: Roberts, Leahy, Guthrie, Fitzwater, Devlin, Ginnelly (Wilson 84), Chambers (Kinsella 46), Dobson, Ismail, Cook, Ferrier (Morris 57).
Subs not used: Dunn, Morris, Kouhyar, Candlin, Parker, Wilson.
Plymouth: Macey, Riley, Edwards, Wootton, Smith-Brown, Grant (Sawyer 73), Fox, Ness, Graham Carey, Ryan Taylor, Lameiras (Ladapo 46).
Subs not used: Letheren, Songo’o, Canavan, Grant, Ladapo, Wylde.