Walsall 0-1 Port Vale Seven Things: Whitney should be cut some slack

Eagles the saviour for Vale – bbc.co.uk

Chris Eagles’ spectacular 85th minute winner at the Banks’ Stadium means Port Vale could yet retain their League One status, after edging out an even game 1-0 against a youthful Walsall side. But what have we learnt from the game?

Vale’s solid start

The visitors looked well-structured in the first quarter of the match, pressing efficiently to force Walsall into playing the ball among their centre-backs. Port Vale came closest on 13 minutes when Sam Foley’s improvised effort flew off-target, before they had a couple of blocked shots and Remie Streete’s header went wide. Having been caught offside on 20 minutes, Dan Turner was again played in by the powerful Danny Pugh after Preston’s slip, but Kory Roberts stayed on his feet and did enough to stop the striker making the right contact.

Walsall’s spell of pressure

Roberts’ performance at centre-back was a positive for Walsall, likewise that of loanee George Dobson, who grew into the first half with some clever skill in tight areas. The lively Kieron Morris had the crossbar rattled – and Vale for the first time – with his strike on 24 minutes. The same player had a shot blocked three later, before his corner led to James O’Connor’s header, which was well tipped over by Leo Fasan.

Hesitant play from Walsall

Walsall were happy to keep the ball in the first half and wait for as long as it took for Vale to open up. This meant full-backs Jason McCarthy and Joe Edwards, who showed flashes of what they can do during that spell of pressure, were not used early enough. Maz Kouhyar held onto the ball in forward areas but could have used the left channel more while Adam Chambers showed his age with slow distribution.

Open start to the second half

As the Saddlers might have expected, they got more space in the final third in the second half. Amadou Bakayoko, who struggled in the first half, saw more of the ball after the break and had two good chances. He sent an overhead kick wide from McCarthy’s 61st minute cross, three minutes after his lob forced a good save from Fasan following Edwards’ through ball. Edwards’ attacking focus often left Eagles free to break down the right, the ex-Manchester United graduate crossing for Foley to head wide from six-yards out.

Subs and Eagles the difference

Michael Brown was criticized for taking off Turner, who could not add class to his youthful exuberance, rather than go with two strikers. JJ Hooper’s 26-minute display vindicated his tactics however, pressing from the front to force back an increasingly nervy Walsall side reluctant to close down in their defensive third. Jon Whitney perhaps made a mistake taking off Bakayoko, with teenage substitutes Tobias Hayles-Docherty and Mitch Candlin (the wind) unable to carry attacks in his absence. Eagles had been Vale’s biggest attacking threat all evening, so it was fitting that he scored the winner, a wonderful strike from just to the right of the box on 85 minutes.

Not a disaster for Walsall

While supporters are entitled to want change, the abuse Jon Whitney received at the final whistle was a little unfair on an honest man who has worked hard under tight constraints. This may not be remembered as a good season for Walsall, but nor has it been a bad one. The club replaced much of last season’s play-off squad on the cheap and are sandwiched in the table by Charlton, MK Dons and Peterborough, who have all invested in proven performers. Walsall do not have that luxury, regardless of whether one cites the board’s lack of short-term ambition or modest attendances as reason. The club has had a youth-centred approach long before Jon Whitney’s reign and tonight, it made sense to assess which of the youngsters could be given a chance next season. None of them looked out of place in an even game against a team facing their last chance to stay in League One.

Vale’s stay of execution

Eagles’ late winner means the Valiants are just one point off Gillingham. With goal difference unlikely to swing in their favour, they need to beat Fleetwood next week and hope either the Gills fail to beat Northampton, or Bury lose at Southend. It will be a difficult task, with their opponents still in with an outside chance of automatic promotion. However, the unity that the fans and players showed at the final whistle suggested that they are at least alive and kicking.