Sheffield United’s eight match unbeaten run was shattered in controversial circumstances following this game of two halves at the Banks’ Stadium.
The visitors had seemed destined to celebrate the New Year with a hard-fought victory over promotion chasing Walsall when Chris Porter pounced after barely quarter-of-an-hour.
However, efforts from Craig Westcarr and James Chambers condemned Nigel Clough’s side to a defeat which left them 18th in the League One table and propelled Dean Smith’s charges up to seventh place.
Although Walsall’s performance after the interval, inspired by the the dangerous Milan Lalkovic, merited some reward, so too did the disciplined shift United delivered before the break.
Their sense of frustration was made even more acute when Smith, acknowledging United’s early superiority, confessed he was unsure why referee Lee Collins had awarded the penalty which, having been converted by Westcarr, ultimately changed the course of events.
“It was nowhere near a penalty, “ Clough said. “The players in the dressing room are absolutely disgusted by it and that was the turning point of the game.
“To lose our record like that is especially galling. When the dust has settled, I suppose we’d rather it happen like that than because of a poor display, but right now it just makes it harder to take.”
Porter ended his six game drought in emphatic fashion, powering a thunderous drive beyond Richard O’Donnell and into the roof of Walsall’s net after seizing upon Stephen McGinn’s pass.
With Clough expected to bolster United’s attacking options during the transfer window, the 30-year-old’s intervention could not have been better timed.
Indeed, until the official handed Walsall a route back into the contest, it appeared Porter’s strike would be enough to seal the seventh victory of Clough’s embryonic reign.
But having seen Westcarr level after Andy Butler and Harry Maguire clashed in the box, James Chambers ensured it was Walsall who claimed all three points instead.
Shaun Miller and Jamie Murphy both enjoyed opportunities as United roused themselves although fellow substitute Julian Gray wasted a glorious chance for the hosts during the closing stages. “The ref reckoned their lad had been pushed,” Clough said. “The ball was 10 yards over both of their heads.
“And, if it was given for that, then we could have had a couple (of penalties) ourselves at the other end too.
“Yes, we were disappointed about their second goal. But the lads did not deserve that.”
Walsall, despite seeing some of their most prized talent poached by rivals clubs, are a model of stability under Smith’s stewardship.
United, by contrast, have been anything but with Clough the fourth person to take charge of the visitors since their previous appearance at this stadium nine months ago.
The former England international’s appointment, however, is designed to usher in a new period of consistency at Bramall Lane.
Clough’s methods, despite this set-back, have prompted a significant improvement in both performances and results although his desire to reshape the squad he inherited from David Weir in October confirms United remain far from the finished article.
With Will Grigg, Jamie Paterson and United’s Febian Brandy all departing the Banks’ Stadium during the close season havingscored a combined total of 40 goals last term, it has been no surprise to see Walsall struggle to prise apart opposition defences this term.
Nevertheless, the arrival of Lalkovic on loan from Chelsea, has equipped them with a player capable of causing even the most miserly of rearguards all manner of problems.
The Czech was instrumental in the moves which saw James Baxendale and Troy Hewitt threaten during the early exchanges.
But United, restoring Conor Coady to their starting 11 at Murphy’s expense, also looked dangerous going forward with Chris Porter, again partnering Jose Baxter in attack, seeing a close range shot smothered by Paul Downing soon after another surging Lalkovic run.
Walsall failed to heed the warning and the former Derby County marksman duly claimed his first since the previous meeting between these two rivals in November.
“We were disciplined and focused,” Clough said. “The conditions out there were very wet and very difficult but I thought there was some excellent passages of play.”
United, despite arriving in the West Midlands eight places behind Walsall, have actually outperformed Smith’s charges following that 1-1 draw in terms of both points accumlated and and goals scored.
However, they were forced to demonstrate a different side to their character when Romaine Sawyers teased his way towards the six yard box midway through the opening period.
Harry Maguire, who had earlier foiled Lalkovic, again intervened before Neill Collins denied Adam Chambers enough space to direct Baxendale’s corner on target.
For the most part, though, United kept Walsall at arms length until Westcarr, who has now scored in each of his previous three matches against United, converted from the spot after replacing the largely ineffective Baxendale.
Baxter, like Porter the victim of several heavy challenges towards the end of the first-half, responded with a curling drive which forced O’Donnell to parry clear.
At the other end, George Long was powerless to prevent Chambers from sliding home when Westcarr and Sam Mantom combined.