Carlisle United fell to their first defeat of the month against a Walsall side who made it back-to-back league wins for the first time since October as they picked their moments to pounce to devastating effect.
And United’s woes were compounded by a disappointing first half penalty miss and a late, contentious sending off for central defender Courtney Meppen-Walter which left the Cumbrians with little to show for a game which brought them plenty of time on the ball.
Carlisle started brightly and a huge pass forward from Max Ehmer caught Andy Taylor out of position. Striker Lee Miller beat the offside trap but O’Donnell did well to beat the fierce effort away as it headed for his top corner.
The Saddlers responded in kind with a lightning quick break as long punt forward from Mantom was shielded by Westcarr. He fed it to Lalkovic and the in-form front man went close as he dropped a shoulder and crunched a rasping shot just over the bar.
The visitors then had loud appeals for a penalty waved away when Manchester United loanee Tom Lawrence wriggled his way into the box. Butler threw a leg out and the pair tumbled to the floor, but the referee turned away and waved play on as the frustrated striker hit the floor.
Walsall looked dangerous on the attack and they went ahead just before the quarter hour following a better period of pressure. United were made to pay as a series of half clearances pushed them deeper and Romaine Sawyers was left free and clear when the ball was clipped back towards the Carlisle box. Meppen-Walter and O’Hanlon were caught on their heels as the confident striker went one-on-one and slid the ball under the advancing Ben Amos.
Carlisle stepped up their game and a long range dipper from Thirlwell had O’Donnell back tracking as it threatened to creep under his bar. David Amoo then earned his side a penalty when he turned Taylor inside out with a mazy run. The defender stumbled and dragged the ball clear with his hand, and the assistant immediately placed his flag across his chest.
Lee Miller assumed spot kick duties but O’Donnell guessed right as he dived low to make the save. The ball broke free but Miller was left to wheel away in agony as he somehow blazed the open goal opportunity high into the stands.
The Saddlers closed ranks to protect their lead as United continued to dictate the pace of the game but the ball wouldn’t break as it flew in and around the area. The half was summed up for United when O’Hanlon headed wide as he came under pressure from a Robson free kick. And a miscued shot from Berrett brought the half to a close as Carlisle went into the break knowing they had plenty to do.
Over-confidence from the hosts just after the restart was almost their undoing as Lalkovic dallied on the ball on the edge of his own area. Berrett poked a toe through his legs to nick it and Lee Miller was suddenly through on goal with just O’Donnell to beat. The angle was tight but he was disappointed to see his effort shave the wrong side of the upright and race away to safety.
Walsall had their moments and a run from Chambers brought a low cross which O’Hanlon had to stretch to clear. Lalkovic picked up the second ball and Amos had to cover his angles as a blistering shot curled wide.
Another teasing Robson free kick brought an 18-yard box scramble as Carlisle tried to get their attacking game into full swing and Berrett was unlucky to see a well struck volley hammer into Butler. Miller kept the loose ball alive and his cut back brought a first time shot from Meppen-Walter which crept high into the stands.
Carlisle were committed to the attack and they had only themselves to blame when they lost possession in a good area deep inside the Walsall half. Mantom spotted Milan Lalkovic in acres of space and a long crossfield pass put O’Hanlon on the back foot. He was able to bide his time and the home fans waited expectantly as he cut across the area before sweeping the ball into the roof of the net in some amount of style.
A Tom Lawrence free kick from long distance was stopped in its tracks as United continued to knock on the door but things got much worse for the Cumbrians late in the day when Troy Hewitt beat the offside trap. Courtney Meppen-Walter stretched out an arm and pulled him to the floor and referee Mr Bond brought consternation from the Carlisle bench when he reached to his pocket to grab his red card.
Hewitt almost rubbed salt into the wounds with the last kick of the game when he drove a powerful shot towards the bottom corner. Amos got across and was relieved to see it bend wide of his near post.
Walsall - Sawyers (14), Lalkovic (66)
Walsall - Purkiss (54), Chambers (81)
United - Ehmer (39), O'Hanlon (60), Robson (77) - Meppen-Walter sent off (90)
Walsall - O'Donnell, Purkiss, Taylor, Butler, A Chambers (Featherstone 84), Mantom, Lalkovic (Gray 90), Westcarr (Hewitt 40), Downing, Baxendale, Sawyers. Subs - Hemmings, Lewis, Benning, J Chambers.
Carlisle United - Amos, Ehmer, O'Hanlon, Meppen-Walter, Robson, Thirlwell, Buaben (Morris 59 (Potts 75)), Berrett, Amoo, Miller (Guy 90), Lawrence. Subs - Fleming, Chantler, Noble, Beck.
Referee - Mr Darren Bond
Attendance - 4,062 (310 away fans)