It was a bad afternoon for Notts County as they were on the receiving end of a 5-1 scoreline against Play-Off chasers Walsall. The Magpies had gone into the game unbeaten in four at Meadow Lane but a disappointing display saw them punished.
Two former County players came back to haunt their former side on the day, as Febian Brandy netted a first half hat-trick before Craig Westcarr struck after the break. Andy Butler also found the net for the Saddlers’ and Callum McGregor grabbed a consolation with his 13th goal of the campaign.
In the build-up to kick-off, Notts were boosted by the return of McGregor on loan until the end of the season and the Celtic forward was put straight into the starting 11. McGregor lined up just behind frontman Enoch Showunmi in place of the suspended Ronan Murray, with wingers Jack Grealish and Jamal Campbell-Ryce either side.
Despite not playing since New Year’s Day, McGregor looked lively in the opening stages and was nearly the man to break the deadlock. The ball was fed inside to the Scotland Under-21 international and he would have found the bottom-left corner from the edge of the box had away goalkeeper Richard O’Donnell not managed to tip behind at full stretch.
Despite the difficult conditions created by a heavy pre-match storm, both sides played some nice passing football. As a result of this build-up play, Sam Mantom and Romaine Sawyers fired wide for the Saddlers and Showunmi was unfortunate to have the ball touched away from him at the last possible moment as he looked to prod home Jack Grealish’s low centre at close range.
On 24, the visitors moved in front after two former Notts players combined in the final third. Westcarr spotted Brandy’s forward run with an incisive through-pass, which allowed the forward to skip past Bartosz Bialkowski with his first touch before placing into an empty net.
Walsall created another opening three minutes later, when Westcarr nodded into the path of Sawyers. However, Bialkowski gathered the midfielder’s 20-yard finish down to his left.
As the pressure continued, a Milan Lalkovic cross was dummied by Brandy to give Westcarr space to strike. Alan Sheehan came to the rescue with an outstanding block and Dean Leacock removed the danger with another vital challenge that prevented a certain second goal.
The resulting corner saw Kieron Freeman clear a Lalkovic header off the line but Notts responded quickly. At the other end, McGregor found room on the edge of the box, only O’Donnell palmed away his curled effort.
The Magpies appeared to be getting on top of the game when Walsall dealt another blow, following a breakaway attack from a County corner. On the left flank, Lalkovic only had Freeman to beat and swept across field towards Brandy, who wasted no time in rifling into the top-left corner, despite the best efforts of the retreating Andre Boucaud.
Notts pushed for a goal ahead of the interval and nearly found it from a dangerous 44th minute Campbell-Ryce cross, which was prodded behind by away midfielder Adam Chambers. Moments later, a McGregor pass into the feet of Showunmi rose nicely and the striker volleyed narrowly over on the turn.
Instead of County reducing the deficit, Walsall increased it before the half time whistle. Again, Westcarr provided the assist with a delightful chip across goal for the unmarked Brandy to complete his hat-trick with a header inside the near post.
Notts needed something special after the break and boss Shaun Derry changed his side’s approach by replacing Showunmi with Kwesi Appiah. Within three minutes of the restart, hopes of a comeback suffered a huge blow as Walsall grabbed a fourth.
Mantom’s free-kick from deep found Butler unmarked at the back post. The Saddlers’ skipper nodded across goal and out of Bialkowski’s reach.
On 53, Westcarr added a fifth, after Notts failed to deal with a long punt from the Walsall goalkeeper. The forward trotted clear of the backline placed beyond Bialkowski.
Sheehan nearly pulled a goal back for the Magpies when he latched onto a searching Freeman cross with a half volley, which forced O’Donnell into a reaction stop down to his left. The stopper was called into action again with another smart save as McGregor targeted the bottom-right corner.
McGregor made it 5-1 in the 61st minute after Grealish was upended by Brandy 25 yards from goal. County’s top-scorer found the top-left corner with an outstanding free-kick but it looked to be too little, too late.
The home crowd was still lifted and Sheehan delivered a teasing cross from the left that narrowly evaded Callum Ball, who had replaced Campbell-Ryce in a switch to 4-4-2. His new strike partner then intercepted a poor headed backpass but was unable to find a way around O’Donnell.
The Saddlers remained a threat and Lalkovic should have added a sixth when he raced clear following a mistake in the County defence. His shot was well blocked by Bialkowski and Westcarr struck over on the rebound.
Lalkovic missed another good chance when he blazed over after being picked out by Brandy. Before being withdrawn, Brandy cut inside Sheehan to test Bialkowski one last time with a low shot.
McGregor looked Notts’ most dangerous player and he drove high and wide from the right flank. Tempest, following his introduction at the expense of Dean Leacock, then found Ball with a superb chip but the striker’s powerful drive was met by another impressive O’Donnell parry.
Two penalty calls were waved away in front of the Kop for a challenge on Boucaud and a handling offence from a Tempest shot. Bialkowski remained busy and although he fumbled a claim, he made up for it with a triple save to keep the game at 5-1 – the final score.