Ten men North End suffered their first defeat of the season at Walsall in controversial circumstances at the Banks’s Stadium.
Goals from Sawyers, Bradshaw and Downing were enough for Dean Smith’s men, despite Joe Garner’s excellent equaliser just before half-time.
The home side took the lead with the first shot of the game, seven minutes in, Sawyers firing low into the bottom corner from 12 yards out, but the Lilywhites were level before the break, Garner driven finish after good build up play by early substitute Jordan Hugill.
Tom Bradshaw restored the lead for the Saddlers just four minutes into the second half with a powerful header.
North End were then reduced to ten men when Jordan Hugill was shown a straight red after a clash with Andy Butler only for the home keeper Richard O’Donnell to get away with lashing out at Hugill in the same incident!
Paul Downing then headed home Sawyers’ left wing corner to make it 3-1 to the home side and with a man down North End were not able to get back into the game, despite their best efforts.
Simon Grayson had made a number of changes, selecting a 4-4-2 formation with King partnering Kilkenny and Little joining Garner in attack. David Buchanan, who came into the side for the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, retained his spot at left back.
However, it was the home side who started the brighter of the sides and took the lead just a few minutes into the game from the first meaningful attack from either side.
A corner from the left, in front of the vocal following from North End, was cleared by skipper Tom Clarke but the ball was fed back into a left hand to find a Saddlers captain Adam Chambers unmarked; he then pulled the ball back to an unmarked Romaine Sawyers on the penalty spot, who slid into the bottom left hand corner to give the home side the lead.
The Lilywhites took a while to get going and it took the enforced substitution of Andy Little to change the tempo. The former Rangers man was replaced by Jordan Hugill on 20 minutes and just six minutes after the No.25 was fouled near the left corner flag by James O’Connor after getting away from the experienced full back. Paul Gallagher’s free kick was into a dangerous back post area, but Richard O’Donnell wasn’t tested.
The visitors were getting closer though and just before the equaliser a North End corner from Gallagher on left was inswung, only for top scorer Joe Garner to power a header the over bar from 15 yards out.
But the front man wasn’t to be denied a minute later. It was a brilliant goal – the ball was played to Garner in the centre circle, he laid it off to Hugill who ran through the middle, drawing defenders to him> As he reached the ‘D’ he passed the ball sideways to Garner who unleashed a powerful drive into the bottom left hand corner – an unstoppable effort and PNE’s first on target.
The frontman was now full of confidence and almost made it 2-1 on 38 minutes with an audacious effort. Fifty yards out he picked up the ball just over half way and, seeing keeper on edge of his box, fired a ball over O’Donnell, but it swerved just wide of the right hand post – brilliant and very unlucky.
In the last minute of the half, with North End growing in confidence every minute, Jack King curled a shot just wide of left hand post after excellent build up. Woods and Humphrey combined down the right before the latter pulled the ball back for Gallagher, who in turn squared it for King to shoot first time.
And then in injury time Woods tested O’Donnell. With Hugill down injured, King and Kilkenny worked the ball out to the right and Woods cut in and fired left footed towards the bottom right, but the Saddlers keeper got behind it to keep the scores level going into the break.
However, it was the home side who went back in front less than four minutes after the break. Anthony Forde raced down the right and whipped a cross to the front post to where Tom Bradshaw, a summer signing from Shrewsbury powered a header into the top right hand corner.
On 69 minutes the controversy started as Jordan Hugill was fouled by Andy Butler put his knees through the back of Jordan Hugill. The frontman got up and challenged the loan man putting his head against him, the Saddlers keeper O’Donnell then charged in and punched Hugill. However, as matters settled Hugill was shown a red card and O’Donnell only a yellow – completely unbalanced officiating.
Almost immediately following the incident North End pressed forward looking for an equaliser and Gallagher delivered for King to head goalwards; the ball was flicked to the back post to where Humphrey was taken out by O’Donnell only for the keeper to spend two minutes getting treatment!
The home side took advantage of the extra man to make it 3-1 with 15 minutes left; Paul Downing heading home Sawyer’s corner at the back post.
Bailey Wright almost reduced the arrears with two minutes left, seeing his effort from Kevin Davies’ knockdown blocked behind for a corner and then from the delivery Joe Garner was unable to find the target with another powerful header.
In the final minutes of five added on for stoppages North End should have reduced the deficit, but O'Donnell - who should have been by that stage showered and changed - denied Alan Browne who had exchanged a smart one-two with Kevin Davies before firing at goal from ten yards out.
However, it wasn't to be and North End were left to rue the decisions that had been made.
Walsall line-up: O’Donnell, Taylor, O’Connor, Downing, A Chambers (c) (Clifford, 46), Bradshaw (Manset, 60), Sawyers (Baxendale, 81), Benning, Flanagan, Forde, Butler. Subs not used: Morris, Kinsella, Grimes, MacGillivray.
PNE line-up: Jones, Woods, Buchanan, Kilkenny, Clarke (c), Wright, Humphrey (K Davies, 77), King, Garner, Little (Hugill, 20), Gallagher (Browne, 77). Subs not used: Stuckmann, Wiseman, Hayhurst, Brownhill.
Attendance: 4,776 (1,122 away fans)
Referee: Mr G Eltringham