Another point on the road...
It was a mixture of frustration and relief as the final whistle blew at the Banks's Stadium in Walsall, with both sides having the opportunity to win it late on. Ultimately, the game ended goalless as Stevenage's unbeaten run in the league continues.
Mark Sampson named four changes to the side who were knocked out of the FA Cup at Peterborough United on Tuesday night, with Luther James-Wildin, Jason Cowley, Terence Vancooten and Craig Mackail-Smith coming into the starting XI.
Along with Kurtis Guthrie returning to the squad after injury, there was a new face on the Stevenage bench. Summer signing Paul Digby had been sidelined since July with an ankle injury, but made the eighteen for the first time this season.
It took just four minutes for Stevenage to have their sight of the Walsall goal. Craig Mackail-Smith, who was starting in the league for Boro for the first time this season, was playing target man with List and Cowley the runners. A ball up from Paul Farman found Mackail-Smith 25 yards from goal, who held the ball up well and drawing the foul. Charlie Carter took the resulting set-piece, and found the striker on the penalty spot. Mackail-Smith attempted a swivel and shot, but could not get the ball out from under his feet and the chance was squandered.
Minutes later, Luther James-Wildin, back from international duty with Antigua & Barbuda, almost set up the opener. A lovely through ball which split the Walsall back four found Charlie Lakin in on goal at a tight angle, however the midfielder blasted wide – the linesman had his flag raised nonetheless.
After 15 minutes, Jason Cowley came close with a diving header from inside the box. Working the space well, Cowley movement in and around the box had continued to cause problems for the Walsall defence. The striker raced forward to connect with the ball on his head, but only saw his effort brush past the side netting.
Up to this point, Stevenage looked comfortable enough at the back. Twenty minutes in, and Walsall had their best chance of the first half. Caolan Lavery had beaten his man down the right-hand flank before drilling the ball across goal, but it took Terence Vancooten and Luther James-Wildin to block shots that looked to be going in.
Stevenage’s 2019/20 campaign has been blighted with injury. Not least summer signing Paul Digby, who was ruled out for four months shortly after signing in July. The defender pulled on a Boro shirt for the first time on the half hour mark, only to replace the newly injured Ben Nugent.
Digby had only been on the pitch less than half a minute, when he was required to dive head first into the action. Rory Holden appeared inside the six yard box with what looked like the goal at his mercy, before Digs appeared and bravely scuppered the chance with a last ditch block.
Matters were almost made worse for Stevenage and their injury concerns, after Jason Cowley had flung himself towards the ball at the back post to get on the end of a wonderful Chris Stokes cross. The forward collided with James Clarke as both fell to the floor, but were OK to continue after being treated on the sidelines.
Stevenage fans had a moment to hold their breath just five minutes to go before the break, as Dan Scarr met Holden’s corner with a free header, but headed wide much to the relief of the Boro faithful behind the goal.
Jason Cowley and Elliott List’s pace was a threat to the Walsall backline throughout, and almost came up trumps on the brink of half-time. List had the beating of his marker on the break, and crossed it low towards Cowley inside the box. The young forward took a touch before firing at goal, only to see his effort blocked.
Half-time came, and neither side had managed to break the deadlock.
Walsall manager Darrell Clarke was obviously unhappy with the performance level of his team in the first half, and decided to make a double change. Danny Guthrie and James Hardy were both introduced into the second period, as was a new lease of life for the hosts.
Walsall’s top scorer with five goals this season, almost turned provider five minutes after the restart. The number nine managed to wiggle his way through and into the Stevenage box, before powering across a dangerous looking ball to the near post. However, the striker only passed to where he would have been standing, and the ball ran on clear of the Stevenage goal.
Mark Sampson was forced into his second defensive change of the day, after Luther James-Wildin was unable to continue. Luis Fernandez replaced him at right-back, where the defender started at Peterborough on Tuesday night.
Then young defender was thrown straight into the action, and did well to beat his man out wide before getting to the by-line. Fernandez drilled his pass low across goal and found Jason Cowley, whose effort was heading in only for Mackail-Smith to stand in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Down the other end, Walsall had picked up the pressure and were back on the offensive on the hour mark. Josh Gordon’s cross found the head of Rory Holden inside the Stevenage box, and would have given the home team the lead but for an outstanding Paul Farman reach to keep the ball out.
Minutes later, the end-to-end form of the game was in full flow. Paul Farman’s long pass to Luis Fernandez on the opposite side of the pitch was knocked down well to the feet of Charlie Carter. Carter spun with the ball on the edge of the area and took aim, but could only find the body of Walsall’s defensive wall.
With fifteen left to play, Elliott List had one of Stevenage’s best chances of the half. A pinpoint Chris Stokes cross was aimed at List running toward the near post, only to see his stabbed effort parried by Liam Roberts and collected on the second attempt.
Ex-Stevenage loanee of last year Elijah Adebayo was introduced in the final few minutes with the hope of finding an all important winner for the home side, and would have done if not for Terence Vancooten. TVC’s last ditch block denied Adebayo from scoring against his former club, when the striker looked to have a clean strike at goal.
Five minutes to go, and Stevenage were dumbfounded as to how they had not gone in front. Two or three efforts were cleared off the line by Walsall defenders in a matter of seconds. The ball just would not go in for Mark Sampson’s side.
However, when the final whistle blew for full-time, Stevenage players and fans alike could breathe a sigh of relief after heavy pressure from the home side in the final few moments. Another top class Paul Farman save denied Josh Gordon, and the crossbar denied Danny Guthrie with a venomous free-kick.
Another point on the road for Stevenage, and it could have been more but for Walsall’s solid defensive display.