MATCH REPORT: Walsall 5 Hartlepool United 2

HARTLEPOOL United squandered a two-goal lead as relegation-threatened Walsall produced a stunning second-half comeback.

Pools were two in front approaching the hour mark after a double from Colin Larkin, the Irishman bringing to an end an 18-month goal drought.

But, having been cruising towards a victory which would have re-ignited their play-off hopes, the boys from the Vic pressed the self-destruct button as Walsall scored five times in the final half hour.

The visitors started brightly and had a trio of headed efforts early in the game, on each occasion, however, they failed to trouble James Walker in the home goal.

First, Sam Collins flashed over from eight yards after Evan Horwood had swept a teasing centre in from the right channel, Gary Liddle then nodded wide from Leon McSweeney’s cross before Larkin saw a looping attempt, from Liddle’s delivery, land on the roof of the net.

But Larkin was a great deal more accurate on 21 minutes as he climaxed an incisive breakaway with his first goal since September, 2009.

Andy Monkhouse slid a pass down the right flank for Liddle to chase, the midfielder picked out Larkin at the near post and the forward did the rest with a confident first-time finish.

Pools lost Steve Haslam at half-time but his replacement, Armann Bjornsson, had a big hand in the visitors’ second of the afternoon on 53 minutes.

Horwood clipped a deep free-kick into the danger zone, towering Icelandic frontman Bjornsson climbed to flick on and Larkin was first to react with a close-range stab into the bottom corner.

But it was another substitute, Walsall’s Argentinian winger Emmanuel Ledesma, who injected life into the flailing hosts.

They pulled one back on 59 minutes when Marc Antoine Gbarssin’s awful miscue spun into the path of Will Grigg who hooked home first time from 18 yards.

Ledesma then came within a whisker of equalising when his 20-yard drive was tipped onto the post by Scott Flinders.

Monkhouse slotted inches wide at the other end before Walsall drew level on 64 minutes, Ledesma sweeping a dangerous ball to the far post where the unmarked Darren Byfield applied a simple, headed finish.

The comeback was complete on 77 minutes, Flinders repelling Grigg’s initial strike only for Julian Gray to nick in and poke home the rebound.

Things went from bad to worse for Mick Wadworth’s men seven minutes from time as slack marking from a short corner allowed Matt Richards to cross for Manny Smith to head a fourth.

And man of the match Ledesma crowned his game-changing cameo with a 20-yard free-kick which nestled into the bottom corner in stoppage time.

Walsall: Walker, Westlake, Smith, Richards, Byfield (McDonald 82), Macken (Grigg 17), Nicholls (Ledesma 56), Gray, Gbarssin, Williams, Butler

Subs: Lancashire, Marshall, Taundry, Bevan

Pools: Flinders, Haslam (Bjornsson 46), Collins, Hartley, Horwood, McSweeney, Gamble, Murray (Humphreys 77), Liddle, Monkhouse, Larkin (Yantorno 83)

Subs: Boyd, Johnson, Donaldson, Rafferty