It might have been a grey day for Fleetwood Town’s senior players, the final nail in the coffin for their faint hopes of a late play-off charge and another day that saw boss Joey Barton less than thrilled with officiating standards in League One.
But there was one, well two, shining lights at the Banks’s Stadium.
In a season of change, transformation and building for Barton’s squad, the Fleetwood fans have seen youth shine through.
When he arrived speaking of giving young players a chance, many eyebrows were raised, mine included. Managers often speak of doing this but few do.
Previous managers had complained about the youthfulness of Town’s squad but Barton is working to achieve what managers should be doing throughout the country.
He is building a pathway from the academy to the first team.
On Saturday at Walsall, with his side melting at set-pieces –a rare occurrence this term, it has to be said – Barton decided to give two of his Under-18s a baptism of fire.
Ryan Rydel, 18, and Northern Ireland international Barry Baggley, 17, came off the bench and showed the desire, passion and willingness to be on the ball that many senior colleagues did not in Town’s dismal second-half showing.
Rydel brought a spark to that left flank and looks like one for the future.
Unafraid to get on the ball, the youngster produced a peach of a cross that could have been converted by Ched Evans at the back stick.
Rydel’s cameo made a statement that Town’s young guns are not in the squad for show. The club’s academy has real talent.
Nathan Sheron, James Hill and now these two are proving that Poolfoot Farm is nurturing highly promising players.
Rydel has been impressing for Simon Wiles’ U18s, while Baggley got the nod having impressed in the development squad’s cup exit to Notts County.
Neither looked out of place and will take heart from their baptisms of fire.
There is still work to be done, though. Rydel was the victim of a ‘welcome to League One challenge’ that could have seen him limping off, while Baggley lost the ball in a key area that left Town grateful for wayward finishing by Josh Gordon when Dean Keates’ Saddlers could have made it 3-0.
The positive signs from the academy cannot mask the fact Fleetwood simply were not good enough in the second half.
Set-piece defence has been strong this term, a far cry from the Achilles heel that saw them battling relegation last season.
But after a solid first-half performance – that saw Town contain a toothless Walsall attack, who lacked confidence and failed to heed the home fans’ cries to ‘hit it –the visitors conceded twice after the break.
Joe Edwards went closest to opening the scoring as his effort whistled over the bar and Walsall spotted a weakness there to exploit.
Fleetwood were left licking their wounds and felt unjustly denied a penalty when Scarr tugged Hunter back in the box.
Handbags ensued but it looked as though Hunter’s frustration was right.
A penalty would have changed the game and given Town a platform to build on.
Town had absorbed pressure from the hosts, Souttar and Eastham making vital blocks and interceptions, but the Saddlers were finding gaps in Town’s 4-3-3 armoury.
They came out fighting in the second half and just seemed to want the points more as they pushed up and pressurised.
Town faltered at a corner first as a host of players switched off.
James Husband let his man sprint to the near post and flick Dobson’s corner on for Morgan Ferrier to nod home, with yellow shirts static.
From Souttar to Sowerby and Evans, too many were ball-watching.
The Saddlers smelled blood as Town buckled. They had been resolute, especially since the arrival of Souttar, but on Saturday they looked nervy and Walsall sensed an opportunity.
Eastham cleared a Devlin effort off the line and Cairns rushed out to stop Gordon one-on-one but you could sense the second was coming.
Husband allowed Liam Kinsella to whip a ball back in after Souttar had cleared a set-piece. Wes Burns was outjumped by Luke Leahy at the back stick, and as Madden missed the ball, Scarr squeezed a shot through Cairns’ legs.
The Town shot-stopper could have done more but the mistakes were across the board. No Town man covered himself in glory from a defensive point of view in that second half.
Cairns tipped away a Leahy effort before the youngsters and Ashley Nadesan came on to brighten the day.
Rydel made his mark and finally provided some supply to Evans, who had cut a frustrated figure holding up the ball with limited service.
Town should have made it interesting late on. Husband’s set-piece found the boot of Eastham in the six-yard box but he scooped the ball over.
The skipper looked to the heavens with his hands on the back of his shaking head.
He knew he should have hit the target and Fleetwood Town knew they should have got something at Walsall.
You could argue Town should have had a penalty but the Saddlers have given themselves a lifeline, while Barton can experiment more in the final weeks of the season.