Matt Maher: Let’s hope Saturday is a mere starter for Walsall
A result which disappointed, yet a performance and setting to provide encouragement for the challenges still ahead.
Walsall might have fallen short in their efforts to create an FA Cup giant-killing. But Michael Flynn and his players were a long way from embarrassed in a tie eventually decided by Kelechi Iheanacho’s heavily deflected 68th-minute goal.
Instead, they should feel emboldened after pushing Premier League Leicester City all the way, in front of their biggest home crowd for more than seven years.
Those first-time or occasional visitors to Bescot, who arrived hoping to witness a fairytale, won’t have been put off by what they saw.
Though the final score was fair, it was not until the final whistle Iheanacho and his team-mates could relax, such was the relentless endeavour displayed by the Saddlers as they tried to bridge a gulf of three divisions and 66 league places.
It is the kind of spirit they will need to show again – and again – over what promises to be a frenetic final four months of the season.
No question, there is no time to dwell on their exertions. Tomorrow night’s rearranged trip to Salford City is the first of 22 matches in 98 days, finishing up at Doncaster on May 8, pretty much half a league campaign crammed into just under 14 weeks.
“It’s always been about the league,” said Flynn on Saturday evening. There can be no argument there.
And yet the Cup run was no unwanted distraction, bringing with it valuable prize money and on Saturday the kind of occasion which should provide any extra motivation required to chase more glory.
Defeat will sting, it always does. But this was always a day when the scoreline was likely to be secondary to the occasion and the reminder of just how far the club have travelled in the 12 months since Flynn replaced Matt Taylor as boss with relegation from the Football League a real and serious threat.
There simply haven’t been enough scenes like this at Bescot in recent years.
This was the first five-figure attendance since the visit of Chelsea for a League Cup tie in September 2015 when Dean Smith, here watching from the stands, was in the dugout.
The challenge for Flynn and his staff is to ensure the wait for the next one is nowhere near so long and they have the opportunity over the coming weeks, whether it be through qualifying for the play-offs or even on a late season charge toward the automatic places.
Both remain possible, after a weekend where results elsewhere largely went in their favour.
The Saddlers will kick-off at fifth-placed Salford five points behind the hosts and the play-off places, with three matches in hand. They have the same number in hand on third-placed Northampton, who they face next Saturday.
By then Flynn will hope to have brought a couple more signings through the door, of which you’d suspect at least one will be in attack.
Pointless exercise though it might be, you couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened had Danny Johnson still been around to sniff out a chance or two on the occasions the Saddlers did put the visitors under pressure.
Andy Williams, match-winner from the previous round at Stockport who started up front, did a more than acceptable job, setting the tone for what was to come by charging down Daniel Amartey’s clearance in the opening 10 seconds and starting a counter-attack. The capacity crowd were immediately into the contest. Every challenge and every block from that moment was met with a roar of encouragement.
But when, perhaps, the home side’s best chance of the match did come to Williams, barely a minute after Youri Tielemans had sent a penalty cannoning off the post at the other end, the 36-year-old volleyed hurriedly over when there had been time to take a touch.
At least Flynn, who was also missing Liam Kinsella and Manny Monthe – two mainstays of his starting XI – through injury and suspension respectively, will have new signing Jamille Matt to provide another option from now on.
The head coach will also hope Owen Evans can continue to produce at the level he showed against the Foxes.
In truth, the goalkeeper’s display came as no surprise to those who have watched him all season. Flynn later admitted he will be relieved when tomorrow’s deadline passes with the 26-year-old still at Bescot.
Evans didn’t have much to do in the first half thanks to Patson Daka’s wayward shooting but in the second he proved an effective last line of defence, denying Harvey Barnes at close range before producing an excellent double save to keep out Tielemans’ low drive and Daka’s close-range follow-up. Tielemans might have missed the target with his spot-kick but Evans went the right way and might have saved it otherwise. In the end it needed an almost perfect deflection off team-mate Comley to beat him.
Flynn’s face flittered between looks of frustration and pride during his post-match duties but a reminder of the bigger picture, quite literally, arrived around an hour after the final whistle when, stands now empty, the head coach posed in the centre circle with co-chairman Ben Boycott and members of the Trivela Group.
In one frame were the men tasked with delivering on the promise of the past few months. Saturday provided a tantalising taste, which should leave everyone hungry for more.