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Walsall prove they can cope without star men in success

Walsall held on for a precious three points against an in-form Mansfield Town team who also have play-off ambitions.

Michael Flynn
Michael Flynn

The Saddlers had to weather a late storm after Rhys Oates had put the Stags back in it with eight minutes left, and it was a nervy finish for Michael Flynn’s much-changed team, who had to cope without Danny Johnson and Liam Bennett.

Johnson was on loan from opponents Mansfield so didn’t play in the game and Bennett had been recalled on Saturday by parent club Cambridge United

Further changes saw Oisin McEntee starting in defence and forwards Douglas James-Taylor and Andy Williams also getting a start, but there was no place for the suspended Hayden White.

Walsall were well beaten in their last game at home to Stockport on Thursday and Flynn was expecting a response from his team.

He certainly got one after they weathered Mansfield pressure from the start of the game to take a half-time lead through James-Taylor’s neat finish, the youngster again on song for his second goal of the season

Mansfield went into the game in good form, having won two and drawn two of their last four games and handily placed in sixth position.

Going into this game, they had beaten Hartlepool 2-1 away on Thursday.

And they looked the more dangerous early on, Walsall starting with a spell of pressure but not able to get any attacks of note going, with Mansfield looking good on the counter-attack.

Owen Evans had to be alert as early as the fourth minute when Anthony Hartigan lofted a free-kick for Mansfield into the Walsall box, which was met by Ollie Hawkins, whose close shot was saved.

Four minutes later, a Walsall attack was broken down and cleared to Rhys Oates, who made good progress towards the Saddlers’ goal and fed Kellan Gordon to deliver a cross that just evaded the waiting Stags forwards.

Another Mansfield counter-attack on 11 minutes saw Will Swan put the ball into the box, it wasn’t cleared and Ollie Hawkins fired just wide. Hiram Boateng was also looking threatening for Mansfield and he saw a shot deflected wide.

As so often for Walsall, Tom Knowles was looking the most creative and he had the first shooting chance for the Saddlers, which he fashioned himself as he cut in from the left on 35 minutes but saw his strike deflected for a corner.

Against the general run of play, Walsall took the lead.

Andy Williams and Jacob Maddox combined in the box and it took a fortunate deflection towards James-Taylor, who made no mistake for his second of the season, taking advantage of his opportunity of a start to press his claim for a regular place.

Knowles fired just wide in injury time as the Saddlers finished the half well and on a high, though Mansfield came back through George Lapslie, who also put a shot past the post.

And the Saddlers got the perfect start to the second half when Isaac Hutchinson’s corner from the left found the head of Liam Kinsella barely a minute after the break, giving Mansfield goalkeeper Christy Pym no chance to make it 2-0 and put Walsall on a real high.

When Williams put a shot just wide from the right-hand side of the box just a few minutes later, it looked like Walsall were coasting through the early stages of the second half.

They still had to be on their guard of course, Oates in particular looking dangerous down the right-hand side and creating a chance with a ball inside which had to be twice blocked then scrambled away. But generally Walsall were controlling the game at two up.

Liam Gordon was having a great game on the left – twice he got angled shots in, the first on 57 minutes deflected wide and the second on 67 almost finding its way past the defenders and into the net, but instead creeping wide.

On 75 minutes, with enough time for Mansfield to get back in the game, Boateng floated in a free-kick and Ollie Hawkins met it, his shot going just over the bar.

The Stags continued to look dangerous on the counter-attack and reduced the deficit when Gordon got a cross in for Oates to convert well, with goalkeeper Owen Evans booked for holding on to the ball in the aftermath.

It looked like Walsall might be in for a nervy last few minutes and so it proved.

However, despite some Mansfield pressure, the defence held firm and all round, this was a good, hard-working performance from the Saddlers against one of the better teams in League Two.

Mansfield didn’t look as strong as Stockport, but in Boateng and Oates always had a goal threat going forward and Flynn will consider this a massive three points.

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