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Football: SADDLERS HELD AS PIRATES PLUNDER LATE POINT.

Byline: PAUL MARSTON at The Memorial Ground

BRISTOL ROVERS 1

WALSALL 1

WALSALL extended their unbeaten league run to 15 games with another typical battling performance in dreadful conditions.

They looked set to improve their promotion hopes with a win until with just three minutes of normal time remaining, Bristol Rovers equalised to make it six league and cup matches without defeat for them.

Walsall were easily the better side in the first half, but the Pirates stepped up a gear in the second half and deserved a point for their efforts.

But it could have been all over before the home side scored.

A minute earlier the Saddlers broke through and substitute Alex Nicholls released Edrissa Sonko inside the box, but the Gambian international, who had scored in the first half, took the ball too wide after rounding goalkeeper Steven Phillips and fired into the side netting.

Rovers accepted that warning, pushed forward again and when big Rickie Lambert headed down a long ball from Sammy Igoe, substitute Sean Rigg managed to force the ball over the line.

Walsall manager Richard Money praised the performance of both teams in difficult conditions on a treacherous pitch, but said: "We are disappointed that we did not win. I'm not saying Bristol Rovers did not deserve something out of the game, but when you are one up with two minutes to go after an almost perfect away performance, it's a shame we didn't win it.

"We had a couple of chances before they equalised, but in the last 15 minutes we had a lot of tired minds rather than legs after the heavy programme of fixtures we have had in the last couple of months."

With rain swirling it was remarkable that both teams played the way they did.

In the first half the Saddlers were outstanding, with left back Paul Boertien - in his first full game since being injured in September - playing superbly.

He formed an excellent understanding with Lee Holmes, making his second full appearance since joining the club on loan from Derby.

The visitors made their passes count and there was a solid display in midfield from Michael Dobson, also back in action after a long injury lay-off.

Walsall began with five across midfield with Troy Deeney the lone striker.

The teenage striker was booked for one lunging challenge in the 29th minute and was a shade fortunate to escape further punishment following a tackle on Steve Elliott shortly afterwards.

With Scott Dann and Anthony Gerrard outstanding at the back when the pressure was on, and Rhys Weston pushing forward whenever the chance was on, the visitors were comfortably in control and deserved their lead which arrived in the 37th minute.

Boertien sent a great ball through the square defence for Holmes to time his run perfectly and produce a great cross into the goalmouth where Sonko rose to head his third goal in as many games. Rovers only real chance in the first half came from a 40th minute corner by Stuart Campbell which Lambert headed over.

Walsall almost added a second just before the break, Dann sending a header just wide of the post from a Holmes corner.

A thunderous response was expected from Rovers in the second half and it duly arrived with with Lambert firing just wide before seeing a close-range header smothered by Clayton Ince.

The Pirates continued to push forward and Danny Coles lifted the ball over the bar after a mistake by Sonko.

Then Ince was in action again hanging on to a diving header from Andy Williams.

Rovers salvaged a point with a goal that should lift their hopes for Tuesday night's FA Cup replay with Fulham at their Memorial Ground.

After the match Walsall boss Money refused to comment when asked about transfer-listed full back Daniel Fox who was not even included in the squad, despite the fact that his move to Colchester for pounds 350,000 had not gone through.

It is understood that Colchester may have pulled out of the deal after failing to reach agreement with Fox's agent, which could leave Wolves to move in for the player.

It is also understood that winger Martin Brittain, formerly with Carlisle, who joined the Saddlers recently on a short contract, has left the club.

BRISTOL ROVERS (4-4-2): Phillips; Lescott, Hinton, Elliott, Jacobson; Pipe (Igoe 63), Haldane, Coles (Disley 66) Lines (Rigg 78); Williams, Lambert.

Subs not used: Walker, Carruthers.

WALSALL: (4-5-1): Ince; Weston, Gerrard, Dann, Boertien; Sonko, Dobson (Nicholls 73), Bradley, Wrack, Holmes (Demontagnac 84); Deeney (Taundry 78). Subs not used: Roper, Gilmartin.

STAR MAN: Paul Boertien.

CAPTION(S):

HIGH-FLIER: Edrissa Sonko heads Walsall in front against Bristol Rovers
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Jan 20, 2008
Words:780
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