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Perrett's Verdict: Walsall 3 Cherries 1
IT was the end of their unbeaten run, not the end of the world.
Cherries’ memorable sequence of 15 league games without defeat came to an abrupt halt following this uncharacteristically below-par performance at the Banks’s Stadium.
It was the perfect storm with the Saddlers apparently turning in their best display of the season on the day Cherries chose to serve up one of their worst – and the least impressive under Eddie Howe.
Hailed by Walsall assistant manager Richard O’Kelly as “a good advertisement for League One”, the contest certainly had everything for the neutral.
However, a more apt portrayal of proceedings came from a commentator on the BBC’s Football League Show who described it as “a masterpiece of absurdity”.
From Cherries’ perspective, striker Steve Fletcher hit the nail firmly on the head when he said: “Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong.”
While injury can often disfigure preparation, Cherries could certainly have done without talismanic winger and reigning supporters’ player of the year Marc Pugh failing a late fitness test on a dead leg.
The absence of Richard Hughes due to illness was another body-blow, as was seeing in-form midfielder Harry Arter succumb to a hamstring injury after just 36 minutes.
Cherries, however, have strength in depth and boss Eddie Howe resisted the temptation to make any excuses for this defeat, his first since he returned to the club in October.
Shortcomings at both ends of the pitch were responsible as 14 of the 21 players utilised during the 15-match unbeaten run decided to have a collective off day.
Goalkeeper David James, whose six clean sheets have been pivotal to Cherries’ revival, had a rare day to forget as almost everything he did manage to touch failed to stick.
James looked on as Sam Mantom’s speculative cross eluded every player in the penalty area before nestling in the back of the net for Walsall’s 27th-minute opener.
A defence which had previously conceded just 13 league goals since Howe arrived looked likely to be breached every time the Saddlers mounted an attack.
Central pair Tommy Elphick and Steve Cook were both given the run-around as Will Grigg embarked on a one-man crusade to double the score on the stroke of half-time.
Having firstly shrugged off Elphick, Grigg then gave Cook the slip before he went down rather theatrically after being caught by the faintest of touches from James.
Faced with beating the former England stopper from 12 yards, the striker rammed his spot kick straight down the middle as James tumbled helplessly to his right.
While Walsall’s 2-0 interval lead was deserved and could have been greater, it could also have been halved had Lewis Grabban not shot tamely at Ian McLoughlin after Brett Pitman’s header had come back off the crossbar.
Having starred during Cherries’ purple patch and led the goal charts as Howe’s men netted 32 times in the 15 games, Grabban could be forgiven for his profligacy.
Pitman’s fine header four minutes into the second half ensured Cherries would maintain their record of scoring in all but one league game under Howe.
However, after James had touched on to the post a drive from Jamie Paterson and snaffled another effort from the same player, Wes Thomas’s misery in front of goal for Cherries continued.
The striker, handed his first league start for the club since August, could only nod his effort against the underside of the crossbar after McLoughlin had dropped the ball on his head barely two yards out.
Cherries were then given a numerical advantage when Saddlers striker Febian Brandy received a second yellow card for hacking Eunan O’Kane during a frantic goalline scramble, brought on after James had spilled Malvind Benning’s free-kick.
Substitute Matt Tubbs later admitted he should have levelled just seconds after replacing Thomas, the striker scooping his effort over the top from inside the six-yard box and with the goal gaping.
The coup de grace came when O’Kane conceded one of the most bizarre penalties ever witnessed, the midfielder inadvertently picking up the ball after thinking referee Andy Davies had blown for a foul.
While O’Kane was the one left with egg on his face, the official should have held his head in shame after failing to award the Saddlers a free-kick when Cook scythed Grigg.
Even Walsall assistant boss O’Kelly described the penalty decision as unfortunate, although Grigg showed no mercy as he administered the knockout blow 11 minutes from time.
Match facts and Echo merit marks
Cherries: James 4.5, Francis 6, Cook 4.5, Elphick 4.5, Daniels 6, Fogden 6 (Fletcher, 81), Arter (McQuoid, 36, 5.5), O’Kane 7, Grabban 5.5, Pitman 5.5, Thomas 5 (Tubbs, 74).
Unused subs: Seaborne, McDermott, Partington, Jalal (g/k).
Booked: James, McQuoid.
Saddlers: McLoughlin, Purkiss, Butler, Downing, Benning, Baxendale (J Chambers, 86), A Chambers, Mantom, Paterson, Grigg, Brandy.
Unused subs: Holden, Featherstone, Hemmings, Bowerman, Taylor, Grof (g/k).
Booked: Purkiss, Brandy, Baxendale.
Sent off: Brandy.
Attendance: 3,173 (including 317 visiting supporters).
Referee: Andy Davies (Hampshire).
Star Man - Eunan O'Kane
Despite his penalty faux-pas, the midfielder was still Cherries’ most impressive performer, even if candidates were in short supply.
O’Kane, who has grown in stature since forcing his way into the starting line-up, stuck to his task and was creative and disciplined on a tricky playing surface.
He was thoughtful in possession and made good use of the ball, his promptings helping Cherries create a number of presentable chances, even if they were squandered.