The Hatters’ opening home game of the new year saw them dramatically edged out of the FA Cup by the odd goal in three in the FA Cup against fellow League Two side Walsall at a sold-out Edgeley Park.
Having faced and beaten the ‘Saddlers’ on their own patch in league action only 10 days earlier, and looking to triumph in the Third Round for the first time since 2001, County fell behind just after the hour, but looked to have earned a return-trip to the Bescot Stadium through substitute Paddy Madden’s strike three minutes from time, before a Walsall penalty was converted in time added on to settle the tie at the first time of asking.
Some Sunday afternoon sun broke out from an earlier overcast sky, as the Hatters took to the field showing three changes from the line-up that had started at Grimsby a week previously. Recently-signed striker Isaac ‘Tanto’ Olaofe was called up for his County debut, and there were recalls for Chris Hussey and Antoni Sarcevic. The trio of replaced players – Ryan Croasdale, Calum MacDonald and Madden – were all named among the nine substitutes permitted for the competition, while Will Collar, in Madden’s absence from the starters, took the captain’s armband for the first time.
With just under three minutes played, the visitors fashioned the first chance of the tie, as Liam Gordon’s low cross from the left was met by Douglas James-Taylor – with Ben Hinchliffe doing well to block the shot at point-blank range.
At the other end, five minutes later, Myles Hippolyte – making his 50th appearance as a Hatter – saw an effort deflected beyond the right post by Liam Kinsella. And from Ryan Rydel’s resulting corner, Sarcevic blazed over from the edge of the box.
Sarcevic half-volleyed another attempt that cleared the Railway End crossbar, before Rydel cut in from the left and drilled past the far upright. And around the first half’s mid-point, Hinchliffe executed his second save of the contest – diving to his right and tipping behind in mid-air a shot from just inside the area by Isaac Hutchinson.
The Hatters continued to enjoy the better share of chances, albeit without the necessary cutting edge. Phil Bardsley saw a delivery from the right comfortably caught by visiting goalkeeper Owen Evans, Sarcevic had a shot blocked in a crowded box, and an Olaofe touch was bundled beyond the right post.
In added time, Tom Knowles went to ground under a Hussey challenge – but play was waved on by Referee Kitchen without undue fuss.
HALF-TIME: County 0, Walsall 0.
Seven minutes after the resumption, and following the inaugural second-half attack of note, Walsall had the ball in County’s net, after the dangerous Gordon had cut in from the left and slotted home – only for a flag to be raised against the visitors for offside.
The Hatters themselves were also flagged, as Hippolyte connected with a Bardsley free-kick to send a header into the arms of Evans. Minutes later, they looked for all the world as if they would get their noses in front, as a Rydel cross from the left was headed by Kyle Wootton and parried by Evans to the feet of Olaofe three yards out – but the ball ricocheted off the debutant and past the far post.
Three minutes after the hour, it was instead advantage Walsall, as leading scorer Danny Johnson’s half-volleyed lob beat Hinchliffe – despite the County Number One’s best efforts to keep it out – and soared into the right corner of the net.
County went close to restoring parity through Collar, whose header – following a Rydel cross from the left – was glanced behind by Gordon. And both Rydel (twice) and Hippolyte had shots blocked, as the Saddlers defended in numbers to preserve their lead.
With 13 minutes remaining, Madden was brought off the bench – and it brought County good fortune as added time approached, as Hussey’s cross from the left was laid off by Wootton for the Irishman to drive home a venomous shot for the equaliser.
Six minutes were added on – during which Hussey cleared a header by Hayden White off the line, and Hinchliffe tipped behind one from Andy Williams, before Madden’s high challenge on Kinsella saw a penalty awarded, which Williams converted in front of the travelling supporters to earn his side a place, and a home-tie against Premier League Leicester, in the Fourth Round.
FULL-TIME: County 1 (Madden, 87), Walsall 2 (D. Johnson, 63; Williams (penalty), 90 + 4).
Team (3-5-2): Hinchliffe; Wright, Lewis, Hussey; Bardsley (Crankshaw, 69), Collar (Capt.), Sarcevic, Hippolyte, Rydel (Madden, 77); Olaofe (C. Evans, 69), Wootton.
[Debut for Isaac Olaofe, with a unique SCAN (Stockport County Appearance Number) of 1443.]
Unused Subs: Jaros, R. Johnson, Brown, Croasdale, MacDonald, C. Johnson.
Man of the Match: Wootton.
Attendance: 9,798 (1,408 away).
Reporter: Gareth Evans.
Photographer: Mike Petch.