Walsall 2 Fleetwood 0 : The Verdict

Fleetwood Town's Amari'i Bell battles with Walsall's Kieron Morris
Fleetwood Town's Amari'i Bell battles with Walsall's Kieron Morris

Anybody who uses the phrase ‘romance of the FA Cup’ has clearly never been to the Bescot Stadium on a wet Saturday afternoon in November.

Amid all the talk of giant-killings and a new national obsession with non-league clubs conveniently located within a five-mile radius of BBC Sport’s Salford base, this all League One clash seemed almost forgotten.

Indeed, it appeared to have slipped the minds of the people of Walsall – barely 2,500 bothering to show up to witness what, in the end, was a routine victory for a Saddlers side riding high in League One.

Walsall’s functional home, in which the crowd battle to drown out the M6 traffic, is hardly the kind of place cup memories are made.

Town’s previous cup encounter there seems a long time in the past – a year in which, against the odds, plucky non-league Town earned a replay against the Saddlers.

Nathan Pond is the only survivor from that side – here making his 400th appearance for Fleetwood, this time facing the West Midlands club as, almost, equals.

However, there remains something of a gulf between the two clubs, proven over 90 minutes as Walsall made their mark in front of goal, Town once again firing a blank.

While there were many similarities to last weekend’s defeat to Chesterfield the story was not quite the same.

Fleetwood created more in two spells on top then they did in the entire of the Spireites clash or, for that matter, the smash and grab raid at Oakwell the previous week.

But be it through confidence or quality nothing stuck – no contact was clean, no decision was quite right, either the final ball or the finish always found lacking.

What Town would give right now for a finish of the quality which earned David Ball a place on the shortlist for the Puskas award.

Becoming a global name overnight certainly seemed to do the Fleetwood striker no harm, his confidence boosted in the early exchanges, his clever footwork almost earning Town an early advantage.

Walsall were far from worldbeaters in the early exchanges, Ball breaking down the right, twisting and turning into the box and sweeping the ball across to the far post.

Jamie Proctor should have pounced, the striker – as he did against the Spireites, fluffing his lines from not so far out, the ball taken away from feet, Fleetwood unable to end their drought.

Despite their profligacy there was still plenty of cause for optimism – Town pressing game being played in and around the Saddlers box, the home side constantly being put off their stride.

All, it seemed, Fleetwood needed was another chance.

It never came, instead the inevitable lapse at the back setting the tone for the remainder of the afternoon.

Walsall had created nothing until they found the net, Fleetwood for a moment forgetting the basics and finding themselves punished.

Town were drawn towards the ball as Walsall built down their left, a first attempt to work the ball into the box failing. There was no need for a second, the Saddlers looking to quickly switch play with Jason Demetriou free on the right.

George Evans decided the full back wasn’t needed, given time and space to shoot from 20 yards, his effort too good for Chris Maxwell, squeezed into the far corner.

It was a quality finish, executed with the kind of confidence Fleetwood can only dream of right now – the kind of moment which has so far defined the campaign.

A Walsall goal against the run of play was just what Fleetwood didn’t need.

For the home side it was enough, something to protect – a task the Saddlers stuck to admirably until very late in the game.

Fleetwood continued to hold their own against the highest ranked side in the contest – moving the ball around nicely at time but lacking the penetration to trouble Neil Etheridge in the Walsall goal.

They might have made matters worse for themselves before the break – a weak touch from Eggert Jonsson opening the door for Romaine Sawyers – a brave last ditch challenge from Pond sparing the Icelander’s blushes.

There were half chances for Fleetwood, but nothing like the visitors had created in their early flurries of activity – a long-range effort from Tyler Forbes, Steven Pressley’s latest attacking experiment down the right, probably the most notable before the interval. Town, in truth, for all their possession, time on the ball, presence in defence and central midfield, looked a world away from a side capable of progressing.

Walsall boss Dean Smith seemed so confident he hauled off his starting keeper and the lively Milan Lalkovic – his side for long swathes of the second half happy to let Fleetwood have the ball.

Town’s extended periods of possession were not exclusively at the will of the hosts, their hard work was being rewarded with plenty of time on the ball. And they were keeping themselves in the game – albeit without demonstrating enough around the box to claw their way back.

If only Town’s secret weapon Nick Haughton was as strong starting a game as he is coming off the bench – the midfielder transforming the game and very nearly providing the spark to earn the visitors a replay.

It was his quality in supply which created the late flurry of chances – Fleetwood inches away from taking the tie back to Highbury.

That’s how close Pressley’s side are to turning their form on its head – deeply frustrating but not easily fixed.

The Saddlers were guilty of some complacency, playing keep ball and attempting to hit Fleetwood on the counter – a strategy which paid dividends at the death to skew the scoreline in their favour.

Haughton’s influence was undeniable but the rally, in the end too late. His vision set fellow sub Declan McManus clear, a moments poor decision making meaning the young Scot chose to shoot not square for Jamille Matt who could have tapped home.

Matt had a chance too, getting on the end of a Haughton set piece but sending his finish just past the outside of the post.

Midfield dynamo turned bruising enforced Antoni Sarcevic went closer still, scrambling to meet a Haughton corner, his effort hooked off the line.

It was Pond who came closest to a dramatic leveller, Haughton swinging in a devil of a free kick, the Fleetwood skipper applying a thumping header which, just for a fraction of a second looked all set to send the net rippling.

Fleetwood, for their late rally, deserved to take the tie back to Highbury. What happened next was cruel.

With the visitors stretched nobody picked up a throw down the Walsall left, Anthony Forde racing unchallenged down the flank, driving into the box and rifling past Maxwell to sink Fleetwood’s cup dream.

Fleetwood didn’t deserve the concede the second but it served once more to highlight their current plight.

Town, tough in midfield, organised at the back, desperately need to find a cutting edge -somebody to turn pressure into the holy grail of goals.

The season is far from dead yet. Town turn to the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy tomorrow with a shot at Wembley still open to them.

Add that to the battle for survival in League One and there’s still plenty for Town to play for – and plenty they can still achieve, should they discover a cutting edge.