SHEFFIELD United’s automatic promotion hopes were dealt a blow last night as they slipped to their second successive League One defeat.
Fears that a defence - shorn of three key names - and anchored by debutants Matt Hill and John Egan - would prove unable to keep a clean sheet turned out to be correct as Walsall posted arguably their finest result of the season.
Hill, signed until the end of the campaign from Blackpool, made a solid start to his United career while Egan coped admirably with the weight of responsibility upon his shoulders following a short-term transfer from Sunderland until both, like those around them, became increasingly anxious as the contest progressed.
But United’s attack also lacked the creative spark to trouble opponents who bolstered their hopes of avoiding the drop when sub Alex Nicholls netted a late winner.
Pedestrian and ponderous, it took a surging run from Lee Williamson to draw United level following Sam Mantom’s opener for Walsall.
Jon Macken edged the hosts back in front as a previously mundane match exploded into life but when Ched Evans beat the offside trap to fire home, Danny Wilson’s charges, now only a point above third placed Sheffield Wednesday, seemed destined to secure at least a share of the spoils.
That was until Nicholls broke their hearts by steering the ball beyond a helpless Steve Simonsen to pile even more pressure on the Blades.
United, whose preparations had been overshadowed by off-the-pitch issues, included both Hill and Egan in a hastily reshuffled back-four while Johannes Ertl retained his place following confirmation that Lecsinel Jean-Francois, the club’s Haiti international, damaged the cruciate ligament in a knee during Saturday’s loss to Oldham Athletic.
Walsall also reshuffled their back - albeit for more mundane reasons - with Mantom, a highly-rated youngster acquired from West Bromwich Albion, charged with blocking the supply lines to United’s Ched Evans.
Nevertheless, the prolific Wales international issued an early statement of intent by sending a long-range effort spiralling just wide of David Grof’s goal.
Smith, emboldened by a dramatic late draw at Leyton Orient three days earlier, had called upon his players to test the organisation and resolve of the visitors’ new central defensive pairing.
However, until Michael Doyle hacked an Olly Lancashire header off the line seconds before the interval, it was United who looked the more purposeful and assured.
On a surface better suited to growing potatoes than piecing together slick passing moves, Ryan Flynn’s persistence posed a threat along the flanks while the indefatigable Richard Cresswell spent the evening attempting to punch holes through the heart of a Walsall rearguard which, despite the hosts perilous predicament towards the bottom of the table, has proven remarkably durable of late.
However, it was not until the 35th minute that United forced David Grof to make a save.
Predictably Evans, who had earlier been involved in the move which saw Stephen Quinn caress the ball home only to be adjudged off-side, was responsible for warming the Walsall goalkeeper’s gloves with a low drive from range.
Andy Taylor, making only his second appearance since recovering from a serious knee complaint, presented United’s leading scorer with another opportunity moments later but again Grof was alert.
Walsall, however, roused themselves during the closing stages of the opening period with Lancashire and George Bowerman both going close.
United failed to heed the warning and 11 minutes after the re-start, Mantom announced his arrival at the Banks’s Stadium by powering the ball into the roof of Simonsen’s net.
Walsall grew in stature with Florent Cuvelier trying his luck from distance but Williamson halted their progress with a clinical finish after Evans had touched the ball into his path.
Flynn and Cresswell, beating the off-side trap, were both thwarted by Grof in quick succession with the impressive Hill also seeing a shot blocked following a melee in the penalty box.
Macken converted from an acute angle before Evans responded in equally emphatic fashion but Nicholls ensured it was Walsall who enjoyed the final word.
WALSALL: Grof 6, Sadler 5, Butler 5, Lancashire 6, Macken 6, Hurst 5, Taundry 5 (Beevers 39, 5), Paterson 5 (Nicholls 48, 6), Bowerman 6 (Grigg 77), Cuvelier 5, Mantom 7. Not used: Peterlin, Walker.
UNITED: Simonsen 6, Ertl 5, Doyle 6, Evans 5, Flynn 5 (Hoskins 83), Williamson 6, Taylor 6 (Beattie 90), Cresswell 6 (Porter 78), Egan 6, Quinn 5, Hill 6. Not used: Montgomery, Howard.
Cautions: None; Red cards: None.