All saddled up for a promotion ride? Walsall's cut-price renaissance
It was in the early sixties; a long time ago, but one of those things that you never really forget. The first time I went a football match, I couldn’t have been much older than five or six, I guess. All decked out with a red and white bobble hat and scarf, my day took me off to Fellows Park, then the home ground of Walsall FC, now the location of a Morrison’s supermarket. The fare on offer there has clearly changed, but for a young kid, the experience was truly life changing – and beats a trip to the supermarket any day of the week. Walsall beat Mansfield Town 2-1. Sad to say that I can’t be sure of the scorers, but I think one of them was Walsall’s long time top scoring left-footed cannonball shot, Colin Taylor and the other was the centre forward – the term ‘striker’ hadn’t been invented in those long gone days – weirdly later to be manager of the Icelandic national team - George Kirby.
Honesty requires me to confess that I pretty soon was hooked by another club, and for fifty odd years, Chelsea have been my team, but you always have an affinity for your home town club, and first love, so I’m always particularly chuffed to see the ‘Saddlers’ doing well. For many a year in the days of my youth, a trip to watch Walsall play was regular fare for my dad – although he was really a Villa fan - and me. We even went to a few away games. Truth be told, the football was never great and although there were an equal number of promotions and relegations over the years, the club was pretty well established in what was then called Division Three, in modern parlance League One, and where the club is currently plying its trade, but looking back, they were magical ‘father and son’ times.
In the same league, but at a new home, Walsall currently play at the Bescot stadium, alongside the M6, and I’m a lot less frequent visitor. The last time was, I think, last season. It was a truly dismal game against Brentford where a disjointed performance brought the seemingly inevitable 0-1 defeat. Now however, it appears there’s an upswing in progress. On an undefeated run of nine games, the club currently sits just three points adrift of the play-off berths, and have a bit of a ‘wet sail’ run going on.
Although I still look for their results, my contact with the club is much less than intimate than in the past, but talking a season ticket holding mate a couple of weeks ago, he related how the usual starting eleven had cost the grand total of zero pounds to assemble, being a combination of youth team products, free transfers and loans. It speaks volumes for the astute managerial ability of Dean Smith that this cut price team has performed so well after a shaky start to the season. Sadly, it may be a bit of a double-edged sword however, as a club with restricted finances is always locked into a ‘develop and sell, redevelop’ cycle, but that’s the reality for a large number of teams outside of the Premier League. If someone approaches with a half decent offer for a player, the club will want to accept for the financial security it gives them, and the player will want accept for the same reason, plus the opportunity to progress their career.
Walsall was the first club of Leeds United legend and England striker Allan Clarke, the footballing dynasty coming from a local area, so I asked my mate who were the stand outs of the current team. He pointed out top scorer Will Grigg who has netted nineteen league goals this season, and is a twenty-one year old with a bright future. His other pick was the elusive winger, and exotically named Febien Brandy, who has apparently earned a number of penalties, duly converted by Grigg.
Currently ninth in the table, it wouldn’t be the biggest surprise in the world if the rest of the season petered out into disappointment. The club does have a history of pulling defeat from the jaws of victory. But it would be great to see the Saddlers have a good end to the season and get into the play-offs, and who knows where from there. It would be good for my mate, but also, bring back a few memories for me of happy times spent with my dad.
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