Walsall 0, City 0
WHAT a difference a wonder goal makes.
City's latest trip to Walsall bore many similarities to last season: chess-match passing games cancelling each other out, defensive discipline at both ends and a strict premium on scoring chances.
All that was missing was a 35-yard howitzer to blow the game open.
Kyel Reid rightly walked City's goal of the season prize with his explosive effort at the Bescot ten months ago. But it needed that bolt from the blue to shake the contest out of its comfortable equilibrium.
Saturday needed something just like that as two well-matched teams jabbed and prodded without threatening to deliver that knock-out blow. They could not be separated.
At a stretch, boxing judges might just have shaded it in Walsall's favour for the late flurry which saw them threaten to steal the win in stoppage time.
The four added minutes packed more penalty-box drama than the previous 90 but Jordan Pickford was equal to the task to deny Adam Chambers and the shot on the turn from Ashley Grimes was more of a danger to the home fans sitting in row Z.
So it was no classic but there was enough for City to take contentedly back up the M6. An away point and back-to-back clean sheets on the road are never to be sniffed at.
It has been a satisfying first week for Phil Parkinson – four points, progress in the Capital One Cup and the prospect of a £200,000 cash bonanza from the upcoming visit from Leeds.
But it has not been the smooth ride for the City manager that you would imagine. A few curve balls have already been thrown in his direction.
For starters, there was the horrible news that greeted Alan Sheehan immediately after his commanding display at Morecambe.
Then there was the loss of the influential Billy Clarke after he tweaked his hamstring as the team went through their tactical training on Friday.
Given the impact that both of those players have already made, Parkinson could have been forgiven for wondering if the football gods were already conspiring against him.
Gary Liddle was also away for three days before his girlfriend Leanne gave birth to their baby daughter. Pickford was back in Sunderland getting treated for a minor strain and Billy Knott had a problem with his calf.
Even new signing Mason Bennett was not exempt. Someone ploughed into the back of his car on Thursday night and wrote it off – though thankfully the Derby teenager was unhurt.
All things considered then, the result against a team who are held up as a solid benchmark of the division was a decent one.
"It's been a long and hard week," admitted Parkinson's assistant Steve Parkin, who was on post-match media duty.
"It's been a little stop-start, so we're all the more delighted to get two clean sheets."
Defensively, City have made a great response since their occasional iffy moments on opening day. Walsall, like Morecambe four days earlier, got little change from a solid bank of white shirts.
For young Pickford, Saturday was a benchmark with his first shut-out in City colours.
There were first-day doubts about the youngster's pedigree when he appeared edgy dealing with Coventry corners. But Walsall clearly hadn't studied the match video because there was a lack of any heavy artillery from the air.
Pickford caught confidently when he was called upon, kicked hard and long once again and then produced the big save when it mattered.
It was a good test of his concentration levels because he had hardly had to over-exert himself through an afternoon of stalemate.
But come the 91st minute, he was still ready. Chambers swapped passes with Ashley Grimes into the box and suddenly a rare window of opportunity opened.
The shot was at a good height for a keeper but Pickford still had to be alert to bat it away from the top corner with two strong hands.
Then Grimes pivoted and skied from the distance of the penalty spot and Pickford's first clean sheet was in the can.
He had been well protected by the back four, living up to Mark Lawn's pre-season boast that they are among League One's best defensive forces.
City are leaving it up to Sheehan when he returns from Ireland but James Meredith hardly weakened the line-up with his inclusion.
It has been a strange summer for the Australian and he still looked to be playing catch-up at the Globe Arena, where he lasted a full 90 minutes for the first time.
He looked much better for it on Saturday and showed that he was capable of mounting a serious challenge for Sheehan's regular starting spot.
Another player with much to prove is Mark Yeates. Had Clarke been fit, you wonder if he might have found himself back on the bench to accommodate Bennett.
Instead, Yeates retained the 'role in the hole' that he favours and put in a tremendous shift, looking to take on Walsall on both sides of the field.
He could have provided that elusive breakthrough after Billy Knott played him in with a clever reverse pass. But Yeates sliced his lob into the side-netting.
Yeates provided the assist for another decent chance which Bennett flicked wide. But the Derby teenager did enough to suggest he will be some player once he is fully up to speed.
Walsall were easy on the eye, with right back Liam Kinsella – the son of Parkinson's former Charlton assistant Mark – and Billy Clifford their main driving forces.
Clifford, who was in the Chelsea youth ranks alongside Knott, floated a pinpoint pass over the head of Andrew Davies but Tom Bradshaw's volleyed stab at it gave Pickford an easy catch.
Aaron Mclean came on for Bennett and had a sniff of his second goal of the season. But his connection past Richard O'Donnell was a soft one and defender Paul Downing had it covered.
The Walsall keeper had no Reid rocket to blink at this time around. City's build-up play promised much but for the most part could not deliver.
It was pretty much the same story at the other end until Pickford's alert finale.