Preston North End have a mountain to climb to reach a coveted Wembley cup final after losing 2-0 at Deepdale in the Johnstone’s Paint Northern Area final first leg to Walsall.
Jermaine Beckford saw two free headers saved by Saddlers shot-stopper Richard O’Donnell in the first half.
But a rare slip-up from PNE keeper Thorsten Stuckmann gave Walsall the opportunity to take the lead in the 84th minute.
The German’s kick fell to Romaine Sawyers 30-yards out from goal, he was brought down by Neil Kilkenny and Anthony Forde smashed the subsequent set-piece into the back of the net.
Saddlers top scorer Tom Bradshaw doubled PNE’s misery as he ran one-on-one with Stuckmann and fired the ball through the German’s legs from a tight angle four minutes later.
The 2-0 defeat means PNE will have to score two or more goals to seal a place in the JPT final in March.
PNE boss Simon Grayson made seven changes to the side that dumped Championship club Norwich City out of the FA Cup on Saturday.
Man-of-the-match in PNE’s 2-0 victory left back David Buchanan was a shock omission from the squad as Scott Laird regained his place in the starting XI.
Kevin Davies, Beckford, Scott Wiseman, Chris Humphrey, Tom Clarke and Kilkenny were all recalled to the starting line-up.
Jack King, Bailey Wright and Kyel Reid all dropped to the bench but Josh Brownhill, Andy Little and Calum Woods missed out on a place in the 16 after starting against the Canaries.
Beckford had a golden opportunity to open the scoring for PNE in the ninth minute. The striker ghosted into the box unmarked and latched on to Paul Gallagher’s cross just four yards out but his header was saved by Walsall keeper O’Donnell.
Tom Clarke headed straight at O’Donnell in the 24th minute before Beckford’s free header forced the Walsall shot-stopper into another save three minutes later.
Up the other end Bradshaw skimmed a shot wide and Stuckmann’s fingertips thwarted Andy Taylor as North End’s keeper dived low to his right to stop the defender’s fierce free-kick.
Just before the half-time whistle Michael Cain smashed the ball straight at Stuckmann and at the start of the second 45 the Walsall midfielder tried his luck from distance again but the ball flew wide of Stuckmann’s right hand post.
On the hour mark Stuckmann punched away Jordan Cook’s set-piece in the torrential rain at a soggy Deepdale.
Bradshaw had a penalty shout waved away by Simon Hooper after he jostled with PNE captain Clarke in the box.
Stuckmann’s kick fell straight to Sawyers in the PNE half and Kilkenny was forced to bring him down. Kilkenny was booked for the foul and Forde stepped up to fire the subsequent set-piece into Stuckmann’s left hand corner.
Bradshaw bagged his 15th goal of the season after racing towards the left of the box and fired the ball past Stuckmann from an acute angle in the 88th minute to leave North End with an uphill battle.
PNE will return to the Bescot for the second leg of the JPT Northern final in a few weeks.
PNE: Stuckmann, Wiseman, Clarke, Huntington, Laird, Humphrey (Ebanks-Blake, 74) Kilkenny, Browne, Gallagher, Davies (Reid, 63), Beckford (King, 74). Subs not used: Jones, Wright.
Booked: Kilkenny, 83.
Walsall: O’Donnell, Taylor, O’Connor, Downing, Chambers, Bradshaw, Sawyers, Cain, Chambers, Cook (Baxendale, 78), Forde. Subs not used: MacGillivray, Purkiss, Flanagan, Grimes.
Booked: O’Connor, 66.
Referee: Simon Hooper (Wiltshire)