WALSALL snatched a point from the jaws of defeat after inspirational substitute James Hardy scored an 86th-minute leveller.

Joseph Mills handed Forest Green a first-half lead from the penalty spot in an opening 45 minutes dominated by the Saddlers.

Earlier, Forest Green boss Cooper was forced into one enforced change from the team that confidently beat Oldham Athletic in the opening game of the season. Suspension-free Carl Winchester came in for George Williams who underwent surgery this week after sustaining a broken leg in the 2nd-minute of the victory over Oldham. Williams is now set to miss the next five months of the season.

Rovers’ boss also included Bristol City loanee keeper Joe Woollacott signed on a season-long loan in the week and he replaced Adam Smith on the bench, with Lewis Thomas given another opportunity following his Oldham clean sheet. Liam Shephard missed out again following minor knee surgery in the summer.

Walsall, managed by former Bristol Rovers boss Darrell Clarke, got their season off to a flyer last time out, beating much-fancied Northampton Town and look odds-on to make a good fist of their season after suffering the ignominy of relegation.

In the first-ever clash between the two sides, it was Walsall who threatened in the opening exchanges - Josh Gordon skewing wide for the Saddlers with just Thomas to beat.

Rovers were struggling to find any cohesion with players still going through the gears in the embryonic stages of a new season.

Walsall had the bit between their teeth - former Cheltenham Town striker Elijah Adebayo slipped beyond the flat-footed Matt Mills, but burly defender Farrend Rawson spared the blushes by getting a sliding block on Gordon.

Rovers were pinned in and survived a 20th-minute let-off when Thomas made an excursion off his line, but Cameron Norman’s dink dropped beyond the inviting net.

Despite all of Walsall’s territorial dominance their first shot on target arrived on 29 minutes – Norman’s arching free-kick forcing a flying save from Thomas and moments later he dropped on an Adebayo strike.

Rovers flickered into life – Aaron Collins fizzing wide of the mark from the edge of the box with 15 minutes of the first-half to go.

Adebayo was giving Nathan McGinley a taxing afternoon – out-muscling the Forest Green man and drilling the ball across the box but quick anticipation from Rawson snuffed out the danger as his block denied Gordon.

On the cusp of the break Thomas did well to glove a rasping deflected strike by Liam Kinsella away from danger.

Rovers’ ill-luck with injuries struck again- Rawson, arguably the standout first-half performer was involved in a clash of heads with Adebayo and was forced off to be replaced by debutant Liam Kitching Deep into the dying embers of the game, Collins wriggled clear of Walsall captain James Clarke who caught the heels of the Forest Green man, leaving Joseph Mills to emphatically beat Liam Roberts from the spot in the sixth-minute of added time.

The goal just before the break knocked the stuffing out of the Saddlers with a twitchy Clarke becoming increasingly agitated in his technical area and he swiftly ushered on Rory Holden and James Hardy within 12 minutes of the resumption.

Walsall sub Hardy was quick out of the blocks, out-smarting Matt Mills, but fizzing over the bar from a central position.

Cooper hooked Collins with 22 minutes to go – calling for Matt Stevens.

Matt Mills picked up a yellow for a block on the muscular Adebayo and from Hardy’s skidding free-kick Thomas did well to glove the ball away with the help of Joseph Mills.

Dan Scarr was handed a yellow for clattering into a poleaxed Thomas.

Cooper played his last throw of the dice on 77 minutes – Ebou Adams replacing the outstanding James Morton as Rovers looked to see the game out.

Walsall were knocking on the door – Hardy bringing the best out of Thomas with a near post stinger.

And just as it looked like Rovers had snatched a victory up popped Hardy to grab 86th minute parity as he smashed home after Gordon’s overhead kick spanked the bar.

FOREST GREEN: Thomas, Bernard, M. Mills, Rawson (Kitching 45), McGinley, J.Mills, Dawson, Morton (Adams 77), Winchester, Collins (Stevens 69), McCoulsky

Subs not used: Woollacott, Grubb, Adams, Mondal, Allen Bookings: Collins 28, Matt Mills 71

Star man: Lewis Thomas

Walsall: Roberts, Norman (Lavery 75), Pring, Sadler (Hardy 57), Pring, Clarke, Scarr, Sinclair, Kinsella, Gordon, Adebayo, Liddle (Holden 57)

Subs not used: Rose, Cockerill-Molett, Jules Bookings: Norman 53, Scarr 75


Referee: Mr Seb Stockbridge

COMING UP: Forest Green travel to Charlton Athletic in the Football League Cup on Tuesday, 7.45pm kick-off.