The Hatters’ final match of a memorable calendar year and first trip to Walsall for over 13 years saw them finish 2022 on a high with a second successive two-goal victory.
A goal in each half for Kyle Wootton deservedly secured maximum points for County, who had last won at the Bescot Stadium in 1999, and saw the Hatters leapfrog their in-form hosts into tenth place – two points outside of the play-off positions.
The Hatters, for their second match of the festive holiday-period, took to the field on a clear and chilly West Midlands night, showing just one change from the starting line-up that had faced Crewe in SK3 three days previously. Macauley Southam-Hales, who had limped off early in the Boxing Day proceedings, was replaced by recent County arrival, and former Scottish international, Phil Bardsley – making his County debut a fortnight or so after signing at Edgeley Park.
With only five minutes played, Will Collar became the second Hatter to have his head bandaged in as many games – suffering, after a collision with the hosts’ skipper Donervon Daniels, the same fate as Ryan Croasdale had done against Crewe, but, like his central midfield partner, being thankfully fit to resume following treatment.
And, as if to prove the point, Collar went close to giving County the lead half a dozen minutes later. Paddy Madden’s lofted ball over the top found his team-mate’s now-swathed head, but Collar’s on-target attempt was brilliantly turned around the right post by home goalkeeper Owen Evans.
Evans was tested again by Collar shortly afterwards, courtesy of a shot from distance that Walsall’s Number One parried away. And both Croasdale and Bardsley blazed efforts over the crossbar, as the Hatters continued their lively start.
The ‘Saddlers’ – sitting joint-top of League Two’s current form table with leaders Leyton Orient – fashioned their first chance of note just ahead of the half-hour mark, when Tom Knowles was played through on goal by Jack Earing, but Ben Hinchliffe stood up to the challenge by blocking with his left foot.
Having lost each of their five previous games at Walsall without a goal to their name, the Hatters, a few minutes later, broke a duck that had extended over eight hours or so of play in WS1 – and, more importantly, went ahead on the night. Collar, on the halfway-line, fed Akil Wright on the right flank – and Wright’s subsequent cross found Wootton, who, six yards out, calmly brought the ball under control before slotting past Evans.
Hinchliffe dived to smother a long-range shot by Liam Bennett, before County hit the woodwork at the other end – as Madden latched on to a Bardsley cross from the right and headed against Walsall’s bar.
Manny Monthé bundled an effort beyond the right post for the Saddlers towards the end of normal time – and, in the course of five minutes added on, Ryan Rydel saw a free-kick deflected behind, before Myles Hippolyte fired narrowly over following the resulting corner.
HALF-TIME: Walsall 0, County 1 (Wootton, 33).
Two attacking substitutions by the hosts upon the resumption indicated their declaration of intent for the new half – and Knowles soon stung Hinchliffe’s hands with a venomous low shot, after cutting in from the right.
The Hatters countered with a dipping volley from Bardsley that fizzed agonisingly shy of the right post, and a foray into the box by Hippolyte who was only stopped in his tracks when the advancing Evans dived to palm the ball clear.
But County’s next attack of note doubled the advantage. Another cross by Wright was picked up beyond the far, left upright by Collar, who chipped back in for Wootton to head home.
Substitute Calum MacDonald saw his first kick – of the free variety, given for a foul on fellow new replacement, Antoni Sarcevic – smothered by Evans. And another free-kick by another substitute, James Brown, hit the right side-netting on the stroke of 90 minutes.
During added time, one more County substitute joined in the fun, as Ollie Crankshaw broke into the Walsall half and rounded Evans outside the box – but his eventual angled shot from the left was collected and cleared by Knowles.
FULL-TIME: Walsall 0, County 2 (Wootton, 33 and 65).
Team (3-5-2): Hinchliffe; Wright, Horsfall, R. Johnson (Brown, 67); Bardsley (Lewis, 67), Collar (Crankshaw, 89), Croasdale, Hippolyte, Rydel (MacDonald, 74); Wootton, Madden (Capt.) (Sarcevic, 74).
[Debut for Phil Bardsley, with a unique SCAN (Stockport County Appearance Number) of 1442.]
Unused Subs: Jones, Barugh.
Attendance: 6,455 (1,174 away).
Reporter: Gareth Evans.
Photographer: Mike Petch.