Checkatrade Trophy: Walsall 3 Middlesbrough U21s 1 - Report and pictures
Walsall made it back-to-back wins in the Checkatrade Trophy with a 3-1 victory over Middlesbrough under-21s – on a night that saw Saddlers record their lowest post-war attendance.
Controversial changes that have allowed Premier League and Championship teams to enter under-21 sides into the tournament meant a crowd of just 702 supporters purchased tickets for the tie, with only nine away fans attending.
Walsall's previous lowest attendance arrived in the same competition back in 2016 when 925 watched a clash with Oldham.
Just a few months before that, 1,022 spectators watched a victory over Grimsby.
But while fans stayed away, Dean Keates’ side secured a comfortable victory thanks to goals from Jack Fitzwater, Maz Kouhyar and Andy Cook.
Dan Ward netted a consolation for the visitors. Overall though, Walsall were far and away the superior side with the Saddlers having now won both their games in Northern Group E.
Keates opted to ring the changes for the cup clash with the boss making eight from the team that secured a last-gasp victory at Bristol Rovers on Saturday.
Luke Leahy, Jack Fitzwater and Andy Cook were the men asked to play their second game in four days.
Otherwise, the boss opted for youth with 17-year-old Alfie Bates given his debut in central midfield.
There were also starts for Connor Johnson, Kane Wilson, Maz Kouhyar and Connor Ronan as the Saddlers stuck to a 4-4-2 formation.
Middlesbrough lined up in a 4-5-1 formation with Tyrone O’Neill the lone striker.
They also included winger Harry Chapman who won promotion with Blackburn last season and former Wolves goalkeeper Andy Lonergan.
It was Keates’ side who took control of the tie from the off with Morris a whisker away from opening the scoring inside the first two minutes.
After collecting the ball on the edge of the box the winger spun sharply. But his arrowed low drive was expertly tipped around the post by Lonergan.
The Saddlers were well on top with Bates seeing a strike blocked from 20-yards.
Leahy then hit a fierce effort just past the post from even further out with it feeling as though a Walsall goal was just a matter of time.
It almost arrived in the 14th minute when - following a corner - Johnson prodded in from close range only to see the linesman raise his flag for offside.
The hosts were looking particularly dangerous from set-plays with Leahy’s delivery excellent.
And it was from a corner they opened the scoring midway through the half with Leahy this time passing short to Ronan.
The Wolves loanee then whipped in a cross which Fitzwater teed up with his first touch before outrageously volleying into the corner with his second.
Boro responded with Wing firing narrowly wide from 20-yards.
But the Saddlers doubled their advantage just past the half-hour mark with Kouhyar glancing in a header following another excellent Leahy ball.
The game had now become something of a training exercise for Keates’ men.
And they should have extended their lead further just before half-time when Kouhyar sent in a dangerous cross.
The delivery was met by Morris just yards out. But Lonergan got down well to block his effort with the winger also under pressure from a defender.
Walsall continued to be the dominant side after the break with Kouhyar close to a third when he fired a fraction wide from 18-yards.
The pattern of the game was is no danger as the clock ticked past the hour mark with Cook hitting an angled drive into the arms of Lonergan.
Ronan then sent a free-kick from the edge of the box just inches over the bar.
Middlesbrough had offered next to nothing. But they were given a lifeline in the 68th minute when Johnson’s clearance deflected into the path of Ward.
The midfielder then did well to jink his way past a challenge in the box before emphatically firing past Chris Dunn and into the net.
Boro were lifted by the goal with Ben Liddle trying to orchestrate things in midfield.
Ward then hit a rasping low drive wide 18-yards from goal.
It was Walsall and Cook though who had the final say with the striker thundering in a strike in from 20-yards just before the 90 minute mark.
Walsall: Dunn, Leahy, Johnson, Fitzwater, Wilson, Kouhyar, Bates, Ronan, Morris, Cook, Gordon (Ismail 78).
Subs not used: Roberts, Vann, Guthrie, Devlin, Parker, McSkeane.
Middlesbrough: Lonergan, Wing, Chapman (Spence 61), Ward, Liddle, Stubbs, Spence, Malley, O'Neill, Dodds, Hood.
Subs not used: Hemming, Stephenson, McGill, Watts, Wilson.