When Dean Smith took charge of Walsall a little over three years ago, the club was on it’s knees at the foot of the League One table. If you’d asked the fans at the time – “where will you be in three years time?” – most would have been placing their bets firmly in the lower half of League One or, more likely, languishing somewhere in the basement division.
So it’s remarkable that after a steady re-building process and a really strong 2013, Walsall are genuine contenders for a place in the League One promotion mix-up this season.
The club managed to record the (joint) fewest Football League defeats in the last calendar year to help notch up an impressive 73 points with the third best defensive record. Certainly a marked improvement on the previous few years.
However, it remains to be seen whether this form can continue over a full football season. If it does, Walsall would be extremely unlucky to miss out on a playoff place.
At the moment every Walsall fan is dreaming of seeing their team play at Wembley – something that no Saddlers fan has ever seen! The club is currently the highest placed team never to have been involved in a game under the famous twin towers or new arch.
This dream might hinge on the next few weeks. Trips to Coventry (Northampton), Peterborough, Preston and Rotherham along with home ties with Swindon, Milton Keynes, Wolves and Leyton Orient make for an important and tough set of fixtures over February and March.
A key to making the most of these fixtures could be the recent re-signing of Febian Brandy on loan from Sheffield United. While the press have been commenting about how well Walsall have done to replace the departed front three of Paterson, Grigg and Brandy this season, in truth, Brandy was never replaced. All season the right wing position has been filled by James Baxendale who, despite being very talented, is a square peg in a round hole in that position.
Another key factor could be the addition of another striker. The fans have been asking the question since August and Dean Smith has only just started making noises about the possibility of addressing the situation.
Walsall have managed only 30 league goals so far this season – comfortably the lowest in the top half. While Craig Westcarr has notched his fair share of goals, when he’s not effective, there is no Plan B. Another striker who could chip in with 5-10 goals over the remainder of the season could just be enough to push Walsall into the top six.
New striker or not, play-off place or not, operating on one of the smallest budgets in the league, Walsall are set to have another really good season and with a bit of luck it might turn into a Wembley debut come the end of May.
Written by Tom Miller, We Are Going Up’s Walsall Blogger
Tom tweets @likelyladtom