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Archive for the ‘Walsall’ Category

Dreaming of Wembley

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

291n78yWhen 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

Walsall’s Remarkable Turnaround

Friday, April 5th, 2013

At 5pm on December 8th, Walsall had just been humiliated at Coventry City’s Ricoh Arena, losing 5-1 in what was one of the most inept performances Saddlers fans had witnessed for years – and believe me there has been stiff competition!

It was the club’s 15th game without a win stretching back to the end of September and, after a promising start, Walsall had slipped to just 3 points above the drop zone and looked destined for a third successive season battling to avoid the dreaded drop to the basement division.

The following week, Yeovil visited the West Midlands and snatched a point despite being 2-0 down with 15 minutes remaining. Another demoralising turn of events, and it was difficult to see where the next win would come from.

Manager Dean Smith had many critics at the time, myself included, but the board stuck with him during an extremely rough patch. Something that you would not see at many other clubs – Blackburn Rovers being a prime example! Smith rode the storm and stuck to his principles; an admirable show of strength from such a young manager.

Fast forward four months, to the return fixtures with Yeovil and Coventry over the Easter weekend, and a remarkable turnaround has seen the club climb to within touching distance of the play-off places. Patience it seems really is a virtue.

The record since December 8th, now reads: P 21 W 12 D 7 L 2 – title winning form.

The true statement of intent from Dean Smith’s men came on Easter Monday when, this time around, it was Coventry who received the humiliation. Even without 19-goal top scorer, Will Grigg, Walsall were rampant and easily ran home 4-0 winners.

Off the pitch there are signs of progress too. The normal Walsall routine every summer is to release 15 players and bring in 15 new players. This year that will be different. Ten senior players are already signed up for the 2013/14 season. Captain Andy Butler has committed his future to Walsall, along with Jamie Paterson, George Bowerman, Ashley Hemmings, Mal Benning, Sam Mantom, James Baxendale, Andy Taylor, Paul Downing and Nicky Featherstone.

The club are also hoping to tie down star forwards Will Grigg and Febian Brandy in the coming weeks. Both players have been instrumental since Christmas, and in keeping them, Walsall will have a very strong basis to start next season from.

With four games to go it is still a lot to ask for Walsall to make the play-offs. Realistically, the full 12 points is going to be needed, but on this form, even that is not beyond the Saddlers.

Sheffield United will be the latest visitors to “Fortress Bescot” this weekend, and whatever happens for the remaining four games, this season has been a good season for Walsall FC – it is now just a question of whether it can become a truly great season.

Written by Tom Miller, We Are Going Up’s Walsall Blogger

Tom tweets @likelyladtom

You can’t win anything with kids!

Friday, September 28th, 2012

It was another summer of uncertainty for Walsall, with no less than 14 players leaving the club.

In truth, however, a complete clear-out was necessary in order to eliminate the losing mentality that has hampered the club for the past two seasons. Finishes of 20th and 19th saw relegation escaped by the narrowest of margins in 2011 and 2012.

Although the clear-out was necessary, more uncertainty followed with the announcements of Dean Smith’s signings for the new season. A plethora of Hereford “rejects” arrived, filling further doubt into the mind’s of Saddlers fans. Every signing was one which did not appear to, on paper, be an improvement on what had been released in the summer.

Ashley Hemmings arrived from Wolves after a loan spell with Plymouth in League Two. Dean Holden was snapped up after being released by relegated Rochdale. Then came the arrival of the players from Hereford – Nicky Featherstone, James Baxendale and Ben Purkiss all signed up having failed to keep Hereford in the football league. These signings along with Paul Downing, Febian Brandy and Connor Taylor shaped the squad for the new season.

An unexpected return for Florent Cuvelier on loan from Stoke proved to be the highlight of the new arrivals. The Belgian U20 captain had been inspirational in last season’s run-in, and his services were secured until January.

What was the one notable fact about all but one of Walsall’s summer signings? They were all young, and all had very limited football league experience. Dean Holden was the exception to the rule, but even his addition looked decidedly dodgy.

Pre-season was fairly uneventful as usual for Walsall. The results proved nothing: there was a victory over Kidderminster, a drab draw with Telford and the annual friendly defeats to Wolves and West Brom. One bright point was that the team had finally seemed to have ditched the hideous hoof-ball tactics that Saddlers fans have been subjected to for the last 3 seasons.

So far this has transferred well into the league. Despite an opening day defeat to recently-relegated Doncaster, a good run of form against the division’s most fancied sides has left Walsall in 7th place after 8 games.

A highly unexpected start has given many supporters reason to feel positive for the first time in years, and even making comparisons to the incredible season the club had in 1998/99. Similar to this season, the club had started the season in 1998 with a whole new unfancied squad and as relegation favourites, but a fantastic team spirit and winning mentality led the team to second place and automatic promotion ahead of Manchester City.

However, it is slightly too early to be using the “P” word, and in reality, 50 points is still the main target.

While victories against the ‘bigger’ sides of Notts County, MK Dons, Preston and Portsmouth may look promising from the outside, the true test of Dean Smith’s new young guns will be in the dull Tuesday night fixtures against the ‘smaller’ sides, where in the last two seasons Walsall have struggled. Next Tuesday’s home tie with Leyton Orient, therefore, may be a serious indicator to how well the Saddlers can do this season.

Alan Hansen once famously said “you can’t win anything with kids”, but there is a refreshing enthusiasm found in the young players signed by the club in the summer. Relying on a front six with an average age of 21 looked like a terrifyingly naive gamble by Dean Smith in pre-season, but so far it has proved to be a highly successful leap of faith.

Written by Tom Miller, We Are Going Up’s Walsall Blogger

Tom tweets @likelyladtom

Stunted Progress for Walsall

Friday, May 11th, 2012

Walsall’s final day away win at Milton Keynes Dons meant they finished the season on 50 points – the usual ‘magic’ number required for safety from relegation. In reality though, a total of 44 points would have kept the Saddlers up this season.

At the end of August a 2-0 win at Bournemouth left Walsall in 10th place and, five games in, their only defeat was an unlucky 3-2 reverse at promotion hopefuls Sheffield United. It wasn’t looking too bad at all.

However, a disastrous September set the tone for the season. Three straight defeats to Brentford, Notts County and Oldham left Walsall comfortably in the bottom half, and a run of just one win in the 16 league games between that Bournemouth result and Christmas left the team, unsurprisingly, in the relegation zone.

A gutsy and spirited display at home to Sheffield Wednesday on Boxing Day resulted in a valuable 2-1 win. A day that will live long in the memory of Saddlers’ fans, as on 90 minutes the score was 1-0 to Wednesday, before two injury time goals provided the highlight of the season.

Unfortunately, it was to be a false dawn. Another run of seven league games without a win left Walsall in serious trouble, and looking like, this season, the game was up. In those seven games, the performances weren’t too bad – creditable draws had been achieved away to play-off chasing Brentford and Carlisle – but it wasn’t enough, something needed changing.

It wasn’t until mid-February and the signing of Stoke City’s Florent Cuvelier on loan, that the promising performances started turning into results. The strengthening of the team had come just in time, exactly as it had 12 months earlier. Sam Mantom followed on loan from neighbours West Brom, and forward Emmanuel Ledesma returned from Argentina for his second spell with the club in March.

A further five wins and seven draws from February, March and April saw the Saddlers reach safety in the penultimate game of the season, thanks largely to the three new additions to the squad, and the four teams below them being so poor.

It was a Florent Cuvelier goal that sealed Walsall’s League One status in the 1-1 draw with Huddersfield, very fitting for a teenager who has proven to be a cut above this level. He was a breath of fresh air in the midfield, and it is a shame he will not be seen wearing Walsall colours again. Bigger and better things beckon for him.

Some say achieving safety one game earlier is “progress”, but mere survival in the third tier should not be seen as success for Walsall Football Club. Thankfully this seems to be manager Dean Smith’s view too, but talk is cheap, and it will be interesting to see how well he does in his second attempt at avoiding a relegation battle.

He seems to have divided opinion amongst the supporters. Some still appear to be hailing his ‘achievements’, having pulled off the ‘Great Escape’ last season and ensured survival this season, despite having a ‘tiny budget’. But other managers have achieved far more at Bescot with similar financial constraints; Ray Graydon’s true miracle of 1998/99 in finishing 2nd ahead of Manchester City (where are they now?) being a prime example of that.

One thing is certain, he needs to learn from his mistakes of 12 months ago. Too many players he signed did not perform. It would be a nice change for a Walsall manager to build a squad capable of achieving something by August, and not in February like the past two seasons. If this happens, maybe some stability will occur, and Walsall can look forward to a boring stress-free season of WDLWDL, and not DDLDDL. Finding another Cuvelier could be key.

Being a Walsall supporter is never dull. In my 15 years supporting the team I can only remember one season (2008-09) when neither promotion nor relegation was pondered at some point. Oh for a season of mid-table mediocrity next year!

Written by Tom Miller, We Are Going Up’s Walsall Blogger

Tom tweets @likelyladtom

Twelve Stats of Walsall’s Christmas

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

“Tis the season to be jolly” but that doesn’t make it any easier to write a jolly blog entry for Walsall FC, and this won’t be jolly at all.

For Walsall it is yet another festive season of struggling – a football club that seems to be losing its soul, is again losing too many football matches. It is clear that this season Walsall’s luck will run out, and relegation is almost certain.

With that in mind, it seems appropriate to put a festive spin on the misfortunes of the Black Country’s poorest football team. A statistical twelve days of Christmas special. Here we go…

12 wins in 53
Walsall have managed just 12 wins in Dean Smith’s 53 games in charge. A win percentage of 22%. Previous bosses Chris Hutchings and Jimmy Mullen were sacked with win percentages closer to the 50% mark.

11 players under-performing
Every game Walsall have 11 players on the pitch either under-performing or uninterested. Harsh that may seem, but players who can do better – such as Andy Butler, Jon Macken and Adam Chambers – are performing well short of their abilities.

10 points adrift
Walsall were 10 points adrift last season when Dean Smith took charge. The comeback was more due to other team’s incapabilities and Plymouth’s 10 point deduction, rather than Smith being a ‘miracle worker’. No matter how you dress it up, it was lucky. This season Walsall may not be so fortunate.

9 winless home games
Walsall have failed to win 9 home league games this season. The sign above the tunnel as the players enter the field reads ‘Fortress Bescot’. It looks as though that is true, but only for the away team.

8 games without a win
Walsall have failed to win any of their last 8 league games, since a 1-0 victory over Preston on the 15th of October. The winless run prior to that win was 7 matches, so things are only getting worse right now for the Saddlers.

7 players sent off
Walsall have had 7 players sent off so far this season. When you are struggling with eleven men on the pitch, it makes it extremely difficult to pick up form if the team finds itself down to ten men. Not only that, but suspensions follow, and with a small squad on a small budget, the subsequent matches are also affected.

6 points to be dropped
Walsall will drop another 6 points over the festive period. Okay, so this is the lowest of the low in terms of any supporters negativity following their team, but I couldn’t think of anything else for #6!

5 goal top scorer
Walsall’s top scorer has 5 goals, and as a team they have scored the (joint, with Exeter) fewest goals of any team in League One. “Boring, boring Walsall” has been the dig from opposing supporters of such footballing glitterati as Stevenage and Dagenham – you know it’s bad when that happens.

4 years since the sale
It has been 4 years since the January sale of 2008 which saw Danny Fox and Scott Dann leave for Coventry, while the club was in a good position to challenge for promotion back to the Championship. The demise since the promising days of Richard Money’s reign is remarkably depressing.

3 cup exits
Walsall have exited all 3 cup competitions before Christmas. Again. No surprise there, but with such poor league form the promise of a decent cup run would provide a little excitement for the ever-decreasing fanbase.

2 many mistakes
and only 1 way down.

Here’s hoping this short, depressing, negative blog entry proves to be completely wrong come the New Year, as Walsall go on a Huddersfield-esque unbeaten run to sneak into the Play-Offs and demolish the Terriers at Wembley (*hic* definitely had one too many now.)

Merry Christmas!

Written by Tom Miller, We Are Going Up’s Walsall blogger

Tom tweets @likelyladtom

Walsall’s familiar osition

Friday, November 25th, 2011

It has been ten league games since the previous Walsall instalment on We Are Going Up. In this time the Saddlers have slipped into the bottom four, having only managed to pick up seven points, with just one win and four draws in those ten games.

This, really, has come as no surprise to those watching the team week-in-week-out, given the tiny squad, lack of experience and unfortunately, lack of quality.

Walsall’s weak squad is not helped by the inconsistent performances of key players. Veteran goalkeeper Jimmy Walker is in and out of the team, central defender Andy Butler has not been the influential figure of last season, new club captain Adam Chambers has not lived up to his pre-season hype, senior striker Jon Macken has been injured and failed to get back to match fitness. The spine of the team is either under-performing or out of action, leaving the youngsters around them out of their depth.

However, the most disappointing factor in the poor season to date, is the lack of passion and fight within the team. The players and management’s consistent comments to the local media avoiding the problems the team are facing, just because “oh well, at least it isn’t as bad as last season” doesn’t help either.

Maybe it isn’t that bad yet (yet, being a very key word here), but Dean Smith has only managed 12 wins in his 48 games in charge, and that is a very worrying statistic. Ignorance of the problems Walsall have ahead of them is only going to make things worse, and something needs to change before it is too late.

Whether that is a change of management remains to be seen. If results continue to go against him, it is likely that Smith’s time will be up at some point this season, but his dismissal will almost certainly be done as a last resort. It is the ‘Walsall way’ and maybe this time without anyone doing a Plymouth and going into administration, the Saddlers won’t be as lucky as last season.

One bright spark to come from the season so far is the emergence of two youth team products – 19-year-old winger Jamie Paterson, and 20-year-old striker George Bowerman.

Paterson has been a main attacking threat in the last two months, he scored his first senior goal at Huddersfield’s Galpharm Stadium a fortnight ago to earn a valuable point. Since then he has been rewarded with a two year extension on his contract to, at least, ensure the club get some control over the fee for him before the 2013/14 season is complete.

Bowerman, meanwhile, has been scoring for fun in the reserves and when given his chance in the first team has continued to impress. He already has two goals to his name from only four senior substitute appearances.

However, other than the emergence of two young players, it is difficult to put a more positive spin on Walsall’s fortunes.

This week’s FA Cup First Round Replay win over Exeter City may have papered over some of the cracks, but it is becoming more and more imperative to find some league wins. That won’t be easy, with tough games coming up away to Stevenage (7th), at home to Charlton (1st), away to Chesterfield (24th) and at home to Sheffield Wednesday (3rd) on Boxing Day, a position well adrift of safety could be on the cards come the new year.

Local pride is wearing even thinner than normal, with West Brom and Wolves looking to establish themselves in the top flight, and even local non-leaguers Stourbridge making national headlines with their FA Cup exploits, Walsall’s claim to being “Pride of the Midlands” could not be further from the truth.

Written by Tom Miller, We Are Going Up’s Walsall Blogger

Tom tweets at @likelyladtom

Goodbye early season optimism…

Friday, September 16th, 2011

Two weeks ago I began writing a blog about Walsall’s start to the season, highlighting how well they were doing and how the atmosphere around the club had improved tenfold in comparison to the same time last season.

The early signs were good. A victory over Leyton Orient on the opening day was followed up by a decent point at Hartlepool. Then the biggest test came at Bramall Lane, nobody gave the Saddlers a chance, but they outplayed Sheffield United for long periods only to succumb 3-2 in the end. Another point against Yeovil, and win at Bournemouth saw the team with eight points from the first five games of the season. Nothing to be too worried about so far.

Then, a scrappy Johnstone’s Paint Trophy win against Shrewsbury Town saw the club’s first cup win against league opposition in ten (yes, ten) attempts. Everything was rosy around Bescot Crescent and words like “ambition” were being coined along with “cup run!”

Our next three fixtures were: Brentford at home, Notts County away and back at the Bescot against Oldham Athletic. All winnable, one would think.

Sadly, I didn’t finish writing the blog in time for the first of these three fixtures and things changed quite considerably from that afternoon onwards.

I was at a family wedding for the Brentford match, and finances dictated that Notts County (the Saddlers’ local derby this season!) was a no-goer too. It seems I got the best end of the bargain ultimately, as two defeats were accompanied by two poor performances.

This brings us to Tuesday night’s home match against Oldham. Why wasn’t there a wedding for me to go to then?

I am certain that had Oldham being playing like that against any other team in the division away from home, they’d have left empty handed. As it was, they were playing Walsall, and left with three points securely in the bag.

Without Jon Macken, there was no nous going forward at all and ending the game with a strike-force of Jamie Paterson, Ryan Jarvis and Alex Nicholls strikes fear only into the Walsall fans (ducking for cover behind the corner flag.)

Unfortunately, the squad is looking terribly thin already, and with injuries to key players we look like a very poor side. This is highlighted by the fact that at least four of the players who left in the summer – Julian Gray, Matt Richards, Emmanuel Ledesma and Jordan Cook - would walk into this side with ease.

Without some loan additions in the right areas (creative midfielder, winger, striker, right-back, the list goes on….) we may be talking about the dreaded ‘R word’ once again.

Dean Smith’s honeymoon period seems to be over and whilst remembering the ‘great escape’ he masterminded last season, it is rarely recognised that despite this, Smith’s record as manager is still not that spectacular. He was heavily aided by the extreme failures of the other sides struggling at the bottom of League One – finishing on 48 points and surviving is a rarity.

The next few matches are going to provide him with his first real test. He needs to stop the rot before Walsall find themselves stuck near the bottom of the league, again.

Written by Tom Miller, We Are Going Up’s Walsall Blogger

Tom tweets at @likelyladtom

Saddle Up

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2011

Being a Walsall fan you expect every summer to be the same. The club’s reluctance to offer players more than one-year contracts leaves us with a hefty re-building job every summer. What it does guarantee, however, is that we are unlikely to see high-earners we no longer want with several years left on their contract. This is a tactic that keeps Walsall in relative financial stability.

This summer has been more of the same for Saddlers fans. Only four players were under contract at the end of the season, leaving manager Dean Smith with a very busy summer ahead.

The 2011/12 season will be an important one for the club, and for the manager. Smith will be in charge for his first full season, after an incredible escape from relegation last season. Taking over from the hopeless Chris Hutchings in January, with the club bottom of the league and a full nine points adrift at one stage, Smith managed to claw the club to safety from what seemed like an impossible position.

Dubbed the ‘Ginger Mourinho’ he has gained the respect of the fans, but all will be forgotten if we have a bad start to the season. In the press, bookies and fans of other League One sides’ perspective, Walsall will be one of the favourites for relegation this season. But another battle at the bottom will be seen as unacceptable by the Walsall faithful. After all, we are one of only seven current League One sides to have played at a higher level in the last ten years.

Smith’s squad building to date has been relatively low-key. On top of the four players already signed up for 2011/12, he persuaded five more to extend their deals just weeks after we had beaten the drop at Southampton. The most notable of these, captain Andy Butler, signed a new two-year deal making him currently the one and only player to be contracted to the club beyond the summer of 2012.

The tenth senior player Smith convinced to re-sign was arguably the most important – goalkeeper Jimmy Walker – already a legend among Walsall fans, he will be aiming to break Colin Harrison’s club appearance record in 2011/12.

Ten senior players on the books (and four first-year professionals) at the beginning of June is an unprecedented number for Walsall in recent seasons. Smith had at least slowed our annual merry-go-round.

By setting a deadline for new deals to be signed, and by sticking to it, Smith showed he only wants players who are 100% committed to the Walsall cause. This strong will gave him the opportunity to pursue other players as soon as possible, giving us much more time to re-build the squad.

Walker was the final player from last year to sign a new deal, so with six players released, and three not opting to sign (or not signing within the deadline set by Smith); there were still nine players to replace.

Here begins the who’s who of Walsall new boys in 2011.

The first summer signing came in the shape of a player appropriately named to be a Walsall player – Mat Sadler. “Sadler signs for Saddlers” – a journalist’s dream! It’s a shame his name is not spelled quite right. A missing D in his surname is backed up with a missing T in his first name. A phobia of double leters sems posible (intentional [sic] there). Hopefully he won’t go missing in any matches like our previous left-backs, Aaron Lescott and Ryan McGivern, did last season

Second to sign was former Carlisle winger, Kevan Hurst. With a decent record for Scunthorpe at this level, he is a player that comes with some pedigree, but has found himself floundering recently.

Possibly the most questionable of Dean Smith’s signings was his third. Ryan Jarvis spent last season as far-from-first choice at Leyton Orient, scoring only two league goals in a play-off chasing side. A promising youngster at Norwich City, he has failed to fulfil his potential, but Smith knows him well from his time at Orient, and believes he can get the best out of him. If not, we can always try to swap him for the other Jarvis down the road playing in orange and black.

Fourth through the now well-used door, was Frenchman Claude Gnakpa from Luton Town. A defender turned winger, he scored 15 goals in the Blue Square Premier last season. Half of that amount would do nicely for us. Gnakpa will surely be a nightmare to League One announcers across the country. Hopefully, he will be a nightmare to League One defenders too.

In at number five, a classic Walsall signing. Birmingham-born Adam Chambers was looking to re-locate back ‘home’ – I’ve lost count of the number of players that have joined the club due to its location. Pre-season friendly performances suggest Chambers may be an example of this working in our favour. Only time will tell.

Our final three signings to date – Lee Beevers, David Grof, and Anton Peterlin – all add to the squad, but none are really getting Saddlers fans on the edge of their seats. Grof’s name being similar to that of ex-Nirvana drummer and current Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl being the only remotely interesting thing about them.

But it’s times like these, after another erase/replace until the summer’s end, you realise one of these players could be my hero next year – stranger things have happened. (All apologies for the musical references in that sentence. Nevermind.)

So, what are my hopes for the season?

To be really cliché, the first aim is getting to 50 points as soon as possible, then 70 points if possible, and then 90 points if possible. To quote a well-known meerkat: Simples.

Oh, and a decent cup run would be nice.

Written by Tom Miller, We Are Going Up’s Walsall Blogger

Tom tweets at @likelyladtom