Wrexham ended their incredible 2023 on a disappointing note, after defeat away to Walsall at the Poundland Bescot Stadium.
Paul Mullin’s penalty cancelled out Jack Earing’s opener in the first half, but in a second-half in which Wrexham twice hit the bar, Isaac Hutchinson and Taylor Allen’s goals fired Walsall to victory.
It meant just a fourth league defeat of the season for Wrexham, and only the fifth of the calendar year for Phil Parkinson’s side.
Wrexham made two changes from the Boxing Day win at Swindon, with first-team captain Luke Young in for the suspended James Jones, and fit-again Paul Mullin returning up front.
Mullin’s return from illness meant Anthony Forde dropping to the bench, and Tuesday’s match winner James McClean reverting to his more conventional left wing-back position.
Young was first to try his luck for Wrexham, opening out onto his right foot after good build-up play on four minutes, and curling a low shot just wide from the edge of the area.
Walsall responded quickly, however, and just moments after the ball flashed across goal when Elliot Lee was caught in possession, Tom Knowles cut inside and shot wide on five minutes.
In and end-to-end opening, Mullin then got onto his right foot but dragged a tame shot at the goalkeeper in the sixth minute. Isaac Hutchinson then fired a vicious, rising left-footed shot over for Walsall on 11 minutes.
Walsall broke the deadlock on 16 minutes, however. Earing burst onto the ball in the penalty area and finished low across goal on his left foot – the first goal past Arthur Okonkwo since his return to action.
Mullin levelled in the 24th minute, however, from a penalty he won himself. Ben Tozer’s long throw was not dealt with, and Mullin’s acrobatic effort struck a defender’s arm– giving the striker the chance to fire his subsequent spot-kick hard and high into the middle of the goal.
Mullin had a gilt-edged chance to double the lead on the half-hour, when Max Cleworth diverted Young’s effort towards goal and Jackson Smith fumbled it, but the striker snatched at his shot and fired over.
The striker was in again on 32 minutes, beating Smith on the left-hand side from a tight angle, but the ball rolled agonisingly across the face of goal.
Walsall continued to create chances of their own, however, and Andy Cannon produced an important block to deny Earing on 33 minutes, and Tozer slid in to deny Donervon Daniels ten minutes later.
Both sides went in level at the break, but just three minutes after the restart, Okonkwo saved at point-blank range and pouched the rebound as substitute Douglas James-Taylor headed a corner goalwards.
Tozer then went close for Wrexham, heading James McClean’s deep free-kick back across goal on 53 minutes, only for a defender to head onto the bar just as it looked like dropping in.
McClean was then called into defensive duties a minute later, producing a key block at the back post to deny Knowles.
Walsall regained the lead on the hour-mark though – Hutchinson curling a free-kick over the wall and beyond Okonkwo’s reach into the bottom corner after Andy Cannon’s foul on the edge of the box.
Frustratingly, Wrexham had been readying a triple substitution – Steven Fletcher, Jordan Davies and Forde replacing Young, Sam Dalby and Jacob Mendy before the game restarted.
It was Forde who’s cross dropped for Mullin on 69 minutes, from which the striker dug a shot out on his right foot, only for Smith to turn wide at full stretch.
Four minutes later, a loose ball fell for Elliot Lee to control and shoot fiercely from the edge of the box, but Smith gathered his fierce shot at the second attempt.
At the other end Hutchinson made space to shoot from outside the area in the 77th minute, but his shot dropped just wide.
Moments later, Daniels strode forward and unleashed a fierce shot which deflected off his team-mate James-Taylor but Okonkwo saved well.
Mullin came close to a spectacular equaliser on 81 minutes, after Lee’s drive forward and lay-off, but his fierce shot clattered the underside of the bar and bounced to safety.
And Walsall doubled their advantage on the counter-attack just two minutes later; Okonkwo got a hand to David Okagbue’s attempted chip but substitute Allen was on hand to tap in the rebound.
James McClean had an acrobatic volley from a tight angle deflect over in stoppage time, but Wrexham could not find a route back – ending the Red Dragons’ recent three-game winning streak.
Walsall: Smith, Okagbue, Farquharson, Daniels, Knowles, Hutchinson, Comley, Earing (Allen 75), Gordon, Draper, Matt (James-Taylor 46)
Subs: Evans, Foulkes, Maher, Williams, Johnson
Wrexham: Okonkwo, Cleworth (Barnett 82), Tozer, O’Connor, Mendy (Forde 61), Young (J.Davies 61), Lee, Cannon, McClean, Mullin, Dalby (Fletcher 61)
Subs: Howard, Boyle, Bickerstaff
Referee: Paul Howard
Attendance: 8,709 (2,258 away)
Walsall: Farquharson (52, foul), James-Taylor (76, foul), Knowles (90+3, UGC)
Wrexham: Cannon (59, foul)