Mark Perrow reports from Banks's Stadium
City were undone by a late equaliser for the second time in succession on the road as hosts Walsall rescued a point with five minutes to go in the Midlands.
It seemed normal service would be resumed when Joe Bryan put Steve Cotterill’s side in front on 11 minutes, but the visitors never kicked on.
Instead Walsall grew in confidence as the second half progressed, eventually snatching a point courtesy of a fine Romaine Sawyers strike.
It was not the most fluent opening ten minutes from the familiar City starting XI, lining up alongside each other for the seventh successive game, with much of the early possession going the way of the home team.
But beyond Andy Butler’s hooked shot comfortably held by Frank Fielding, Walsall had nothing to show for their efforts and soon fell behind as City showed their superior cutting edge.
For a moment it looked as if Luke Ayling had nowhere to go facing his own goal on the halfway line, but a smooth turn away from his man offered room for a cross from deep.
When Ayling’s ball was just overhit for intended target Aaron Wilbraham, Bryan
picked up the pieces, cutting inside on to his right foot to bury a smart finish inside Richard O’Donnell’s near post.
It was the sixth goal of the young Bristolian’s professional career and the fourth on his naturally less favoured right foot.
Suddenly City were settled and playing their usual game.
Wilbraham threatened to capitalise on a mistake from Butler, who dallied with the ball only to be handed a reprieve when City’s top scorer shot weakly at O’Donnell.
Then Luke Freeman burst into the Walsall box and saw his shot deflected behind before Wilbraham converted from Derrick Williams’ cross but was flagged offside.
The latter chance came after a Williams slide tackle was considered reckless by Walsall fans and staff alike whose appeals fell on deaf ears, while Kieran Agard was already in the book for failing to retreat the full 10 yards at a free kick.
The Saddlers have so far struggled to replicate last season’s form which saw them occupy the top half of the table for the bulk of the campaign, but showed a glimpse of their attacking prowess when Anthony Forde forced Fielding to help his dipping 25 yarder on its way over.
It had not been a first half to live long in the memory, with the next incident of note involving a bloody collision for Wilbraham, whose stooping head connected with the studs of Walsall’s Paul Downing.
Fortunately the frontman was able to continue, and before long strike partner Agard was bearing down on goal.
First he resisted the opportunity to go down under an outstretched leg inside the penalty area, before Wade Elliott’s quick feet and cute pass supplied Agard in the inside-right channel, but again the offside flag intervened before O’Donnell made a fine stop.
The message from Steve Cotterill at the interval would have been loud and clear: kill the game; and there was extra vigour about City straight from the restart and Freeman in particular.
The midfielder evaded a couple of challenges to wriggle into shooting range but dragged his effort wide, before his surging run and pass set up Agard in a great position only for the striker to be off target in seeking out the far corner.
But from then on City seemed to drop deeper and invite unnecessary pressure.
Walsall were not exactly throwing the kitchen sink, but Fielding had to be alert a couple of times to deal with dangerous crosses and speculative shots.
But the hosts continued to probe and were rewarded with an excellent equalising goal five minutes from time.
There seemed no danger when lively youngster Sawyers
collected possession 30 yards from goal, but a neat exchange of passes with Forde presented the opportunity for the midfielder to send a brilliant first-time shot into the top corner to level the scores.
It was hard to argue that the Saddlers were worthy of being on terms, and City had been distinctly below par throughout the second half.
Having survived a goalmouth scramble soon after the equaliser, City displayed much improved hunger to find an even later winner.
Agard could not find the necessary power to trouble O’Donnell from Bryan’s deflected cross before Elliott cracked a long-range drive straight down the goalkeeper’s throat.
City had showed more attacking intent in the six added minutes than in the previous 40, but Aden Flint was off target with the last chance of the afternoon with a free header from Elliott’s last-gasp corner.