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Walsall 1 Forest Green 3 - Report

Walsall’s first home league game in front of supporters for almost 18 months turned into an anti-climax as they were picked off by clinical and classy Forest Green...writes Michael Beardmore.

SPORT COPYRIGHT MNA MEDIA TIM THURSFIELD 14/08/21 .WALSALL V FOREST GREEN.Joss Labadie..
SPORT COPYRIGHT MNA MEDIA TIM THURSFIELD 14/08/21 .WALSALL V FOREST GREEN.Joss Labadie..

The outcome was beyond doubt by half-time, Matt Stevens’ brace sandwiching a predatory finish from Jamille Matt, amid a late first-half collapse from Walsall.

Brendan Kiernan’s stoppage-time curler at least broke Walsall’s duck under their new boss Matthew Taylor but it was scant consolation for the hosts, although they deserved their goal at the very least.

An Ash Taylor header was foiled by a goal-line clearance just after Rovers’ opener, Kieran Phillips was denied by an excellent save and Conor Wilkinson struck the post with a cracking curler.

But despite finally finding the net, the defensive frailties displayed in the latter stages of the first half will add to the early-season conundrums Taylor has to solve.

Ash Taylor and Udoka Godwin-Malife

Again without playmaker Rory Holden, back in training but not risked here, they still looked bright at times going forward but struggled to cope with the attacking threat posed by the visitors.

Defeat to a Forest Green side that reached the play-offs last term is no embarrassment – albeit it was Rovers’ first-ever win over Walsall in six attempts – but will have left Taylor plenty to ponder.

To highlight how much has changed in the 525 days since Walsall last hosted a home league game in front of fans, not a single player that started that day – in a 3-1 win over Exeter – featured here.

Of that starting XI on March 7, 2020, only Holden remains at the club and while he was again absent, there was some good news on the injury front as skipper Joss Labadie shook off a minor knock.

That meant there were just two changes from the penalty shoot-out loss to Rovers, both in defence as veteran Stephen Ward and Manny Monthe came back in for Tom Leak and Rollin Menayese.

Walsall created the first chance, Wilkinson sliding through Kiernan before the ball fell to Kieran Phillips, whose low shot was saved by Luke McGee.

Labadie lashed over first-time from 25 yards soon after as the Saddlers made a promising start, albeit one that counted for little when Forest Green took the lead 20 minutes in.

Taylor failed to get enough purchase on a headed clearance from a deep corner and Ben Stevenson’s ball back in was hooked on by Matt for Stevens to nod home from close range.

Dejected Saddlers at the final whistle....

Walsall were almost level immediately as Tyrese Shade won a corner at the other end but Taylor’s towering header was cleared off the line by Rovers midfielder Regan Hendry.

But Walsall were unlucky not to equalise on 40 minutes as Emmanuel Osadebe’s slide-rule pass found Phillips and he cut inside a defender to bend in a fine strike that McGee superbly tipped wide.

The game, though, was lost with two goals in three minutes before half-time as Walsall self-imploded at the back – and were fortunate not to concede another.

Matt doubled Rovers’ lead, steering home ex-Saddlers loanee Kane Wilson’s low ball from the right, before Carl Rushworth’s strong left hand stopped Stevens ending a three-on-two break with a third.

The escape was only temporary, however, as Monthe pulled back Ebou Adams in the area and the referee’s assistant flagged for a penalty that Stevens coolly stroked home.

Walsall were booed off at the break, perhaps harshly considering they had created almost as much as the visitors, but the late collapse was fresh in supporters’ minds.

Emmanuel Osadebe and Ebou Adams...

The hosts might have had a route back into the game five minutes into the second half had Wilkinson’s exquisite curler found the net from 20 yards – instead it came back off the post.

The former Leyton Orient man went close again midway through the second period, a measured goalbound shot blocked by a sprawling defender after Kiernan’s backheel from Osadebe’s pass.

Wilkinson looked Walsall’s brightest spark for much of the game, playing in the Holden role, and it will be interesting to see how Taylor employs both when the latter is declared fully fit.

It was Holden’s return that inspired Walsall to end their miserable 14-match winless run against Forest Green in April, on his first start in almost four months after a knee ligament injury.

It is understandable that Taylor and Walsall want to manage his return carefully – they cannot afford to lose him for a long a spell as last season.

First, though, the manager must repair the confidence of a dented back-line, who were lucky not to concede a fourth late on before Kiernan curled home to give the remaining fans something to cheer.

Prior to that, Rushworth denied Hendry’s free-kick and Matt’s follow-up before the pick of his saves to deny Jack Aitchison low at his near post.

Teams

Walsall (4-2-3-1): Rushworth; Mills, Taylor, Monthe, Ward; Labadie (c) (Kinsella, 56), Osadebe; Shade (Earing, 46), Wilkinson, Kiernan; Phillips.

Subs not used: Rose (gk), Leak, Menayese, Perry, Bates.

Forest Green Rovers (3-4-1-2): McGee; Godwin-Malife, Sweeney, Bernard; Wilson, Hendry, Stevenson, Cadden (Allen, 73); Adams; Stevens (Aitchison, 63), Matt (c) (Young, 81).

Subs not used: Thomas (gk), Cargill, Edwards, Diallo.

Goals: Stevens 20, 45 (pen), Matt 43

Attendance: 4,310 (228 away)

Referee: Simon Mather (Manchester)

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