Fleetwood Town’s first season in League One has been nothing if not a learning experience.
Graham Alexander’s men have undoubtedly shown progress over the last nine months.
The display at Highbury against Preston North End a fortnight ago showed how they have shaken off their naivety – the side displaying far more grit and resolve than the one which began the campaign after promotion.
But Town may have to look to next season to launch a concerted play-off push
And to do so they will need to add one more weapon to their armoury – an ability to break down frugal sides; those, you could say, built in their own image... like Walsall. The Saddlers proved at Highbury in November how stubborn they can be – hanging on to a single-goal lead and frustrating Fleetwood for nigh-on 90 minutes.
And it was more of the same at the Bescot Stadium, where Alexander’s men fell to their first defeat in five games as Tom Bradshaw’s late winner ensured three points for the home side.
Bradshaw spun away from his man in the area and fired past Chris Maxwell from a tight angle to give the Saddlers a vital victory.
Alexander made one change to the side that triumphed 4-0 over Yeovil Town on Easter Monday, with Gareth Evans coming in for teenager Nick Haughton.
Town began the game with purpose and attacked the right flank well, with Antoni Sarcevic, Evans and David Ball combining dangerously.
Ball then made room for himself on the bye-line before picking out Jamie Proctor in the box. The striker turned well but fired over the bar.
Walsall’s first opportunity of the game came after 13 minutes, when Romaine Sawyers picked out Bradshaw and he volleyed over from a good position.
Town were presented with another good chance when Ball burst forward menacingly and broke into the box, only to curl his effort wide of the top corner.
Michael Cain later whistled a long-range effort wide for the home side, while at the other end Evans bent a strike over from the edge of the area for Fleetwood.
Alexander’s side were indebted to young full-back Tyler Forbes on the half-hour mark as he blocked Romaine Sawyers’ goal-bound shot excellently.
Opportunities were at a relative premium for both sides as the game reached half-time, though Town keeper Maxwell did well to keep out Kieron Morris’ shot at his near post.
Walsall started well after the interval, and Nathan Pond had to be alert to block Bradshaw’s effort from a tight angle.
The Saddlers continued to apply pressure as Town struggled to get a foothold in the game.
Cain sent a close-range header over, while James O’Connor struck off target.
Maxwell then saved low down to deny the lively Bradshaw, who returned to the home side’s starting 11 after a lengthy spell out with injury.
Alexander brought on Haughton for Ball on 70 minutes as Town looked for another attacking dimension alongside Proctor.
Haughton caught the eye immediately and flicked the ball into the path of Evans, who was inches away from giving the Cod Army the advantage from distance.
At the other end, Andy Taylor’s inviting cross from the left was met by the head of Bradshaw but he could only steer his effort over.
Walsall took the lead with less than five minutes of the game remaining as Bradshaw did well in the box and beat Maxwell with a cool finish from a tight angle.
Town have clung onto their play-off dream for far longer than anybody could have imagined.
With four games remaining there is still a glimmer of hope.
But the realists may have already decided it’s time to look to next season.
And if they are to make the next step in their adventure up the Football League, Fleetwood will need to learn to deal with the Walsalls of this world ... and come out on top.