GARY Madine’s stoppage-time equaliser salvaged a point for Sheffield Wednesday against Walsall as the race towards the Championship took yet another twist.
New manager Dave Jones had not lost since replacing Gary Megson in the Wednesday hot seat at the start of the month but was just seconds away from suffering his first defeat.
But Madine scrambled the ball home in the fifth minute of added time to maintain Jones’s unbeaten record – although the result will still be regarded as a setback.
The Owls had won three out of three prior to last night and had drawn level on points with arch-rivals Sheffield United.
But this failure to win, coupled with the Blades’ emphatic away victory at Notts County, means the gap between third and second spot is now two points with eight games each to play.
To make matters worse for the Owls, Huddersfield Town also moved closer in fourth spot thanks to victory over Chesterfield.
The Terriers still have a game in hand and play host to the Owls on April 7 – ensuring a tension-packed finale to the League One season.
Jones had stuck with the side which had won his previous three games in charge while options on the bench had been boosted by the return from injury of winger Jermaine Johnson.
Walsall started the game one point clear of the relegation zone but with a game in hand on most of their rivals.
The Saddlers had won only three of their last 14 games under manager Dean Smith – no stranger to Hillsborough following a spell at the club as a player eight years ago.
Striker Ryan Lowe spurned two early opportunities to put the Owls ahead as the visitors struggled to deal with high balls into the area.
Hungarian goalkeeper David Grof prefers to punch rather than catch crosses which had clearly been identified as an area worth exploiting by the Owls.
Winger Michail Antonio grazed the crossbar with a 30-yard drive and it looked only a matter of time before the Owls would make the breakthrough.
Lowe sliced another attempt on goal before Antonio caught the eye once again with a thunderous angled drive which smashed against a post.
With Sheffield United, Huddersfield Town and MK Dons all winning at the 35-minute stage there was an increasing need for the Owls to make possession count.
Frustration started to show and striker Madine received a final warning from the referee for a series of clumsy challenges.
The Owls were let off the hook, too, when Walsall’s Alex Nicholls failed to take advantage of unusual hesitancy by goalkeeper Stephen Bywater when he allowed a dangerous far-post cross to bounce into touch.
Grof’s vulnerability in the air showed again, just before the interval, when he flapped at Madine’s cross. Unfortunately for the Owls, the loose ball was hacked off the line by Andy Butler.
Defender Danny Batth got into a tangle with veteran striker Jon Macken after the break and might have been cautioned if the incident had been spotted by the referee.
The Owls started the second half with purpose, but still struggled to find a telling final ball.
Walsall grew in confidence and duly stunned the home crowd by taking the lead in the 58th minute.
Macken scored from 12 yards out after good build-up play between midfielder Kevan Hurst and Florent Cuvelier but the situation was rectified temporarily by a speedy equaliser.
Striker Lowe made up for his earlier misses, converting at the far post from a corner.
The Owls appealed in vain for a penalty moments later when Walsall goalkeeper Grof launched an unorthodox challenge on Madine after dropping yet another cross.
Substitute Johnson then joined the fray – replacing the out-of-sorts Mike Jones – to give the Owls pace on both flanks and the Jamaican soon showed his threat when a long-range drive passed narrowly the wrong side of the Walsall crossbar.
Things turned sour for the Owls with 18 minutes to go, Walsall winger Jamie Paterson making space on the edge of the area before unleashing a brilliant shot into the top corner from a tight angle.
Perhaps it was cruel luck on the Owls – however, they had simply not shown the cutting edge needed to press home earlier authority.
As the game entered its final period, Walsall goalkeeper Grof finally replaced his unpredictability with some quality and made vital saves to deny Madine and Antonio.
But he was unable to hold the ball under late pressure and this allowed Madine to score his third goal in four games.
Relief mixed with a sense of disappointment around Hillsborough at the final whistle but, rest assured, this will not be the only twist in the final few weeks of the League One season.
Sheffield Wednesday: Bywater; Buxton, Batth, R.Jones, Bennett; Antonio, Semedo, Lines, M.Jones (J.Johnson 63); Lowe (O’Grady 81), Madine. Unused substitutes: Jameson, Prutton, Llera.
Walsall: Grof; Beevers, Smith, Butler, Sadler; Paterson (Westlake 90), Cuveller, Mantom, Hurst; Nicholls, Macken (Bowerman 90). Unused substitutes: Walker, Lancashire, Ledesma.
Referee: A Haines (Tyne and Wear).