An inability to defend set pieces was frequently the Saddlers downfall during the 2021-22 campaign and it cost them dear at Barrow last night.
Two corners, two free headers and inside 12 minutes Michael Flynn’s team found themselves in a two-goal hole from which they never really looked like escaping, despite Danny Johnson’s sixth goal of the season early in the second half giving them hope.
Nothing is decided by mid-August and a return of seven points from four matches is more than acceptable for a squad assembled over the course of one summer. It is going to be several weeks before we know where this season is heading and every 90 minutes at this stage is an education.
But Flynn will hope the aerial weakness shown early at Holker Street was a one-off and not a sign of anything more chronic.
Tyrell Warren and Sam McClelland were the home side’s scorers and though the Saddlers battled hard, pulling one back early in the second half through Johnson, they never looked like levelling until the final kick of the match, when Peter Clarke fired agonisingly wide from the edge of the box.
A positive result would, in truth, have contained an element of smash and grab, goalkeeper Owen Evans having kept the visitors in the match with some impressive saves.
Changes to the team from Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Stevenage were hardly a surprise considering the Saddlers, with a trip to Gillingham to come on the weekend, will clock up 660 miles travel over the course of the week.
Flynn handed Liam Bennett and Timmy Abraham their first league starts for the club, with Taylor Allen and Andy Williams dropping to the bench.
But having tinkered only sparingly during the opening three league matches, Flynn made a further two changes to the team before half-time as his team struggled to cope with Barrow’s energy.
A glance at the programme would have told the visitors they were facing fired-up hosts. Both manager Pete Wild and chairman Paul Hornby railed against the injustice of a disallowed equaliser late in Saturday’s 1-0 defeat at Sutton in their notes. It was no surprise to see them start quickly.
The Saddlers needed to match the intensity but couldn’t. Former Kidderminster loanee Ben Whitfield was a useful outlet for the home side and won the corner from which they took the lead, Warren left unmarked at the far post to head Patrick Brough’s corner beyond Evans.
For the first time this season Walsall trailed and the deficit quickly got bigger. This time Whitfield delivered the ball into the box which McClelland powered home from six yards out.
Isaac Hutchinson drilled a shot wide as the Saddlers looked for a way back but other than that and a shot from Johnson which whistled just over the bar, home goalkeeper Paul Farman had a relaxing half.
Instead, the visitors were fortunate to reach the break only two goals down. Former Saddlers striker Josh Gordon should have done better with a free header from a Whitfield cross, while the latter was then denied by Evans at the near post after Brandon Comley had been swamped by three Barrow players and dispossessed 25 yards from goal.
Flynn did not wait much longer to rip up the gameplan, Hutchinson and Donervan Daniels replaced by Ronan Maher and Tom Knowles as the Saddlers switched shape to a back four.
It was a move which paid dividends a minute into the second half when Knowles played a key role in getting the Saddlers back into the match.
After seeing an initial cross blocked, the forward’s second whipped effort was beyond the reach of Farman with Johnson arriving at the far post to bundle the ball over the line.
The Saddlers had more purpose about their play but they were indebted to Evans for preventing Gordon from restoring the home side’s two-goal cushion. Running on to Brough’s infield pass, Gordon sent a first-time shot toward the bottom corner and then wore a look of disbelief when Evans got down quickly to his left and turned the shot round the post.
Walsall lost Hayden White to injury just past the hour mark but the bigger headache for Flynn was his team’s inability to build attacking momentum.
Johnson saw the merest sniff of an opening as the game headed into the final 20 minutes but it was quickly snuffed out by home skipper Niall Canavan, the Walsall striker’s ambitious appeals for a penalty ignored by referee Andy Haines.
As the Saddlers committed more to the attacks, so the openings increased for the hosts. Harrison Neal came close to pulling off the spectacular with an overhead kick which Knowles, in the right place at the right time, turned over his own bar.
Walsall looked out of ideas until with the last kick Clarke slammed a snapshot inches wide from the edge of the box.
Barrow (4-3-3): Farman, Warren, McClelland, Canavan, Brough, Foley, Gotts, Neal, Kay (Stevens 86), Gordon, Whitfield (Rooney 69) Subs not used: Nwabuokei, Waters, White, Kenlock, Lillis (gk).
Saddlers (3-4-1-2): Evans, Daniels (Knowles 41), Clarke, Monthe, White (Allen 61), Kinsella, Comley, Bennett (Williams 79), Hutchinson (Maher 41), Abraham, Johnson Subs not used: James-Taylor, Earing, Przybek (gk).