Two first half own goals condemned Hinckley AFC to a narrow defeat at Walsall Wood.
In a perfect example of the cliched game of two halves, Wood were on the front foot in the opening 45 minutes and found themselves two goals to the good courtesy of Dominic Perkins and Richard Lavery both turning into their own net.
Steve Hart’s reply on the stroke of half time brought Hinckley back into it, and despite dominating the second half Dale Belford’s side couldn’t force home what would have been a deserved equaliser.
In the end, Wood were indebted to ‘keeper Lloyd Ransome for a series of fine late saves to keep Hinckley at bay and preserve their record of winning every home league game this season.
It’s a rare luxury for a manager at this level to be able to field an unchanged side, but Belford did just that – naming the same eleven that beat Coventry Alvis last week.
And after Jordan Fitzpatrick wasted an early free kick for the hosts, Hinckley had the first real chance. Josh Willis won a good header in midfield, and Hart hooked a neat ball in behind for Isaac Cooper to race onto. The winger’s touch was heavy, though, and Ransome gathered.
Cooper’s long throws were a source of chances for Hinckley all afternoon, and he gave an early indication of what was to come when his first of the day was flicked goalbound by Lavery, but Ransome saved.
As chances settled down, Wood had the wind at their backs and started to put pressure on the Hinckley back line.
And Hinckley withstood that pressure until the 24th minute. James Williams’ clearance hit Tony Clarke, allowing the forward a run to the byline. When he got there, he pulled back into the six yard box where Perkins’ attempted clearance skewed off his foot and over the line to give the hosts the lead.
Minutes later, Clarke forced Ty Belford into a fine fingertip save, cutting in from the left and bending a fine effort which was destined for the corner until Belford’s strong hand pushed it wide.
And with Hinckley struggling to get out, Wood doubled their lead 12 minutes before the break. It came from a wide free kick, which struck the far post, rebounded back onto Lavery and bobbled over the line despite Belford’s scrambling effort to retrieve.
Against a side who had kept eight straight clean sheets until Tuesday, Hinckley now had a hill to climb but they responded well and, seeking a route back into the game, had Willis’ looping header held by Ransome.
Hinckley were then thankful to Belford’s fine double save for keeping their hosts at two, denying Clarke, who raced through one-on-one, before also stopping the same player from the rebound.
And that save was to prove crucial as Hinckley went straight up the other end and halved the deficit. Willis found Kevin Thornton and his clever ball inside found Hart, who rolled Mitch Tolley before lashing home at the near post to pull Hinckley back in the game.
With the stiff breeze still playing a part, Hinckley would have been confident of dominating the second half proceedings – and that they did. The hosts were penned inside their own half for large spells as Hinckley controlled possession, territory and chances.
But despite that, Ransome was rarely called into anything other than routine work until the final few minutes.
Hinckley set the tone from the restart, and had the first chance when Wood failed to deal with another Cooper long throw, Thornton volleying over from 15 yards.
Cooper then fired wildly over from range before Hinckley’s big chance of the half’s early stages. Marcus Jackson beat Craig Deakin down the right and delivered a great ball to the far post which bobbled over Hart’s outstretched leg, the striker inches away from converting his and Hinckley’s second.
With Hinckley forcing the issue, substitute Bekir Halil’s deflected cross was heading in until Ransome tipped over for a corner, before Lavery headed Perkins’ cross straight at the keeper.
The home side’s only chance of the second half came when Mitchell Tomlinson’s short backpass nearly allowed Clarke to run through on goal, but Belford raced out quickly to deny him.
With the one way traffic resumed, Ransome was found wanting from Cooper’s next long throw but, as the ball looped over his head, the fortunate keeper recovered to claw the ball back just before it crossed the line.
With time running out, it looked increasingly like Wood would hold on but AFC kept pressing, and forced Ransome into a series of stunning saves in the closing stages.
With three minutes to go, Tolley was caught out by a high ball which bounced nicely for Hart 25 yards out. On the half turn, the striker hooked goalbound with superb technique and the effort was destined to level affairs until Ransome’s flying save pushed the ball wide.
Perkins headed the resulting corner just over, but from that goal kick came another chance. Ransome scuffed his kick straight to Luke Richards, who brought down a bobbling ball and charged towards goal only for the keeper to make amends for his error, denying the Hinckley substitute with his legs.
As the game entered stoppage time, Williams headed onto the roof of the net, and when they won an attacking throw Hinckley knew they had one final chance.
From Cooper’s launch into the box, Richard Munday’s header was deflected wide. Jake Healy’s resulting corner caused havoc, a scramble resulting in a flying Hinckley leg sending the ball towards goal but Ransome again stuck out a big left boot on the line to block.
And with Hinckley unable to convert a late equaliser, they slipped to their fourth league defeat of the season as they return to St John’s Park for Belford’s first home league game in charge next week.
Walsall Wood: Lloyd Ransome, Lewis Hayden, Craig Deakin, Keenan Meakin-Richards (Gavin Hurren 62), Callum McFarlane, Mitch Tolley, Peter Till (Lewis Taylor-Boyce 73), Andy Westwood, Sam Agar, Tony Clarke (Chris Slater 77), Jordan Fitzpatrick. Subs not used: Dan Okojie, Jonothan Gould
Goals: Dominic Perkins (24, OG), Richard Lavery (33, OG)
Hinckley: Ty Belford, James Williams, Mitchell Tomlinson, Dominic Perkins, Richard Munday, Richard Lavery (Jake Healy 77), Isaac Cooper, Josh Willis, Kevin Thornton (Luke Richards 62), Steve Hart, Marcus Jackson (Bekir Halil 62). Subs not used: Kyle Minto, Ben Rad
Goal: Steve Hart (43)