TRANMERE Rovers could find no way through a stubborn Walsall defence at Prenton Park last night as they missed the chance to extend their lead at the top of League One.
With rivals Sheffield United held to a surprise draw at home to Crewe Alexandra and the division’s other leading teams also failing to win, a victory for Ronnie Moore’s side would have seen them put clear daylight between themselves and the chasing pack.
But for the second home match in a row, Rovers were unable to score – and a small section of the home crowd made their frustrations clear at the final whistle by booing their table-topping team.
A shake of the head from Moore showed what he thought of the reaction to the 0-0 stalemate.
In the first half, both sides struggled to put a finishing touch to their approach play. The fact that the best chances came from individual mistakes summed up the opening period.
Rovers had to make do without the driving influence of skipper James Wallace in midfield. The former Everton man was a surprise absentee due to a bug so Danny Harrison was drafted in to partner Liam Palmer in the middle of the park.
The first opening arrived after nine minutes, Ash Taylor heading over after Adam McGurk had worked a short corner with Andy Robinson and whipped the ball into the box.
A rare mistake from Tranmere keeper Owain Fon Williams almost presented Walsall with the first goal of the evening on 17 minutes. The Welshman’s misjudged pass fell straight to striker Will Grigg, who raced in on goal but sliced his effort wide when he really should have made it 1-0.
Saddlers skipper Dean Holden then had a let-off when keeper Aaron McCarey deflected Danny Holmes’ right-wing cross into the big defender’s path. The ball bounced off Holden’s legs and tricked narrowly past the post. The majority of fans in the ground thought the ball had ended up in the back of the net.
Teenage striker Cole Stockton, called into the starting line-up following the departure of on-loan forward Jake Jervis, drew a sharp low save out of McCarey on 25 minutes when he turned his marker and fired towards the bottom corner.
The main attacking threat for Walsall was Northern Ireland international Grigg. He raced clear of the Rovers’ back-line on a couple of occasions but his composure let him down at the vital moment and he failed to test Fon Williams.
Jamie Paterson was also a danger. He twice went close from long range as the half drew to a close, before Rovers finished the first 45 minutes with a couple of chances of their own. Paul Downing almost deflected the ball into his own net under pressure from Rovers’ Jake Cassidy, while Robinson lost his footing as he attempted a snap-shot a minute into first-half injury time.
The hosts almost fell a goal behind less than a minute into the second period. Fabian Brandy raced clear of the Rovers defence but Fon Williams sprinted out his goal and denied the nippy forward, saving with his legs.
Just after the hour mark, a reshuffle from Rovers boss Moore saw full-back Paul Black introduced for striker Stockton. The switch saw Robinson pushed into attack and Zoumana Bakayogo pressed into service on the left wing.
Bakayogo headed a fiercely-struck Cassidy cross over the crossbar with 13 minutes remaining and Robinson shot narrowly side after Black whipped a teasing ball in from the left.
But despite having plenty of possession, clear chances were at a premium for Rovers and they had to settle for a share of the spoils.
TRANMERE: Fon Williams, Holmes, Taylor, Gibson, Bakayogo, Robinson, Harrison, Palmer (Power 85), McGurk (Kirby 78), Stockton (Black 63), Cassidy. Subs: Goodison, Eccleston, Kay, Mooney. Booked: Taylor.
WALSALL: McCarey, Taundry, Holden, Featherstone, Grigg (A Chambers 89), Paterson, Hemmings (Baxendale 78), Brandy (Bowerman 78), Downing, Taylor, Mantom. Subs: Jones, Grof, Benning, J Chambers. Booked: Brandy.
REFEREE: Jeremy Simpson (Lancashire).
STAR MAN: Zoumana Bakayogo – good contributions in defence and attack.