Port Vale: Match report v Walsall
YOUNG goalkeeper Sam Johnson was the unlikely hero as an epic tale produced a fairytale finish.
The 19-year-old marked his first-team debut by making three stunning saves in a dramatic penalty shoot-out – then capped it all by hitting the winner himself.
The former Stoke City trainee had earlier played an impressive role in a stunning game which swung from end to end before finishing all square at 2-2.
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Goals from Florent Cuvelier and Will Grigg had seemed to put League One Walsall on their way into the next round. But midfielder Ryan Burge pulled one back and striker Tom Pope grabbed his 12th in just 14 games to force the game to penalties.
The 6ft 7in Johnson replaced groin injury victim Chris Neal to make his first start for the club and there were four other changes as injuries and the threat of suspension gave other members of the squad a chance to shine.
Adam Yates came in at right-back, with Richard Duffy moving into central defence. Chris Shuker and Ryan Burge were the new pairing in central midfield, and Ben Williamson was brought in to partner Tom Pope up front.
Vale, backed by a noisy army of 943 fans behind Johnson's goal, were quickly on to the front foot with Jennison Myrie-Williams and Ashley Vincent probing down either flank.
And they went close to taking an early lead when a Burge corner from the left was met by a brilliant header from Duffy. The ball was heading right into the top corner, but Walsall keeper Karl Darlow leapt high to his left to pull off a great save.
Pope then rattled in a shot from the edge of the area that Darlow again dealt with well and, as visiting fans raised the decibel even further, Williamson burst on to a loose ball only to be denied by Darlow, who had rushed out of his goal.
Loud and proud Vale fans were having a party and things on the pitch were going well too, as the visitors prodded and probed while keeping their more illustrious opponents at arm's length. Andy Taylor's free-kick was blocked by the wall and Richard Taundry's subsequent corner was headed high and wide by striker Ashley Hemmings as Walsall at last roused themselves.
Jamie Paterson's shot from distance was collected by Johnson at the second attempt, but there remained little to suggest the teams ply their trade at different levels of the game until Walsall were literally, and rather cruelly, handed a controversial lead after 25 minutes. Belgian midfielder Cuvelier, on loan from Stoke, found space on the right and tried to jink past Duffy on his way into the area. The Welsh defender stumbled and fell on the ball, giving referee Darren Deadman the chance to award a penalty, having ruled that Duffy made contact with his arm.
The decision seemed harsh, but Cuvelier wasn't complaining as he sent Johnson the wrong way. And Vale's reaction to the incident was summed up by Vincent, who carried his complaint a step too far and was carded for dissent.
The livewire winger was doing his level best to raise visiting spirits once more with a fabulous run from halfway, but his low cross failed to find any of several yellow shirts lurking with intent.
While Walsall were now keeping the ball well in midfield, the Valiants still looked dangerous on the break and went close to a leveller right on half-time.
Myrie-Williams's cross from the right was headed back into the danger area by Pope at the far post and Vincent's effort was blocked at close range by the impressive Darlow.
Walsall doubled their lead soon after the restart. Duffy seemed to be trying to shepherd a loose ball for a corner down the left side of Vale's penalty box. But he was robbed by Will Grigg, who ran into the area before firing his shot from the angle low into the net at Johnson's near post.
If home fans were thinking they could relax at last, they were soon thinking again as Burge picked up possession halfway into home territory after 49 minutes. The young midfielder burst forward into space and let fly with a left-foot shot from 20 yards which found the right corner of the net.
Cue a magnificent crescendo from the Vale faithful, who sensed the start of a sensational comeback.
If Williamson had found the net, rather than the legs of busy home keeper Darlow four minutes later, after a great run by Myrie-Williams, the roof would have come off.
But it was now all Vale and Williamson stung the hands of Darlow once more with a drive from distance before man-of-the-moment Pope went one better by finding the net yet again.
Collecting a pass from Myrie-Williams on the right side of the area after 61 minutes, the striker fired hard and low into the far corner and beyond Darlow's despairing dive.
Williamson was not far away with another shot the Walsall keeper was happy to see fly just over his crossbar, but the home side picked up the pace in what was becoming a breathless encounter and Johnson had to be alert to keep substitute Febian Brandy from putting his team back in front with a prodded shot from an angle.
Vale still hadn't finished and after Pope had fired across goal and wide, Burge's surging run from midfield ended with a pass which substitute Louis Dodds fired first time against the outside of the post.
It was perhaps fitting that such an entertaining game would go all the way to the drama of a shoot-out and so it proved. But who could have predicted the story about to unfold?
The teams traded blow for blow as the penalty episode played out.
There were six misses in a row at one stage and only 11 scored from 22 taken in the end.
Chris Shuker, Ryan Burge, Joe Davis, Rob Taylor and, comically, Louis Dodds all failed to find the target and, with their misses matched by Walsall, it seemed almost as though neither team wanted to win.
But with Myrie-Williams, Pope, substitute Ryan Lloyd, Adam Yates and John McCombe successful, it came down, almost unbelievably, to the goalkeepers and it was Johnson, who had already pulled off two spectacular stops to deny Cuvelier and Nicky Featherstone, who held his nerve.
Darlow, named man of the match after a great performance between the sticks, was up first. But Johnson dived full-length to his left to pull off the best save of the lot.
And having given himself the chance to become the hero, the young keeper wasn't about to blow it now.
He stepped up to rifle a right-foot shot into the left corner and send those visiting fans into dreamland.
Johnson hardly seemed to know how to react, but the rest of the players certainly did and the hero of the night was duly mobbed by ecstatic team-mates.
The poor old stadium announcer sounded as if he needed some fresh excitement in his life.
Maybe he should start following Port Vale instead – that might do the trick.