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
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
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
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
“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.)
Written by Tom Miller, We Are Going Up’s Walsall blogger
The League Cup has, in recent years, been written off by some observers as a second rate competition which creates unwanted congestion on an already hectic fixture calendar. However many Football League clubs have enjoyed successful runs in the competition, with some reaching the semi-finals, the final or even winning the cup itself on occasion.
It is no secret that many of the country’s biggest clubs use the League Cup as an opportunity to play the reserves or field their youngsters, which can lead to some unexpected results and allow lower ranked sides to reach the latter stages of the tournament.
Last week Dougie Freedman’s Crystal Palace upset the odds by defeating Manchester United 2-1 at Old Trafford to reach the semi-finals – where they will meet fellow Championship side Cardiff City after they beat Premier League Blackburn Rovers in the last eight. Since the League Cup’s inception in the 1960/61 season there have been plenty of other upsets and this week Toppo’s Top Ten looks at some of the most memorable….
10: Sheffield Wednesday 1 Manchester United 0 1991
Wembley has seen its fair share of cup final upsets down the years and the 1991 League Cup Final was no different. Manchester United went into the game as FA Cup holders and huge favourites as they faced Sheffield Wednesday, who would go on to win promotion from the Second Division that season.
Former United manager Ron Atkinson was the Owls’ manager, pitted against Alex Ferguson, the man who replaced him in the Old Trafford hotseat five years before. It would be Big Ron who would be smiling by the end of 90 minutes as a ferocious volley from midfielder John Sheridan settled the game. The second tier outfit pulled off a shock by beating United to claim the League Cup for the first time in their history.
9: Norwich City 0 Milton Keynes Dons 4 2011
Premier League new boys Norwich City crashed out of this season’s Carling Cup in the first round with a humiliating 4-0 home defeat to an MK Dons side two divisions below them. Canaries manager Paul Lambert made eleven changes for this match and his side fell behind on 21 minutes to a goal from former Norwich player Luke Chadwick. Striker Sam Baldock, in one of his final Dons appearances before his transfer to West Ham United, doubled the lead seven minutes later with a powerful strike having been played in by Stephen Gleeson.
In the second half Karl Robinson’s side extended their lead further as Chadwick combined with Dean Bowditch before netting his second of the game and substitute Daniel Powell capitalised on some poor home defending to make it four on 67 minutes. A memorable win at Carrow Road for MK Dons which is Lambert’s heaviest defeat during his two year tenure as Norwich boss.
8: Queens Park Rangers 3 West Bromwich Abion 2 1967
By 1967 the League Cup had been running for seven years but this year’s final was the first to be played at Wembley – up until then the final consisted of a two-legged affair with a match played at the home ground of each team. The first final underneath the Twin Towers proved to be a cracker, as First Division side West Bromwich Albion met Third Division Queens Park Rangers, playing at Wembley for the first time.
The favourites lived up to their pre-match billing as as they took a 2-0 lead into half-time thanks to former QPR winger Clive Clark’s brace. However the Hoops fought back in twenty second half minutes as Roger Morgan scored with a header to make it 2-1, then a great individual run and strike from Rodney Marsh equalised. Rangers eventually won 3-2 thanks to Mark Lazarus’ late goal and in doing so they became the first club from the third tier to win a major trophy.
7: Southend United 1 Manchester United 0 2006
Manchester United won the Carling Cup in the 2005/06 season and were looking to reach the quarter-finals the following campaign. In their way were Championship side Southend United and a capacity crowd packed into Roots Hall to witness this fourth round encounter.
Sir Alex Ferguson fielded a United side including ten internationals in the hope of avoiding an upset with the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney on the field for the whole 90 minutes, but they would end the night humbled. On 27 minutes Southend frontman Freddy Eastwood lined up a free-kick some distance from goal before running up and unleashing an unstoppable, bending drive which beat Tomas Kuszczak in the United goal to put Southend a goal up.
Despite United pouring forward in search of an equaliser, Southend goalkeeper Darryl Flahavan kept them at bay with a string of great saves while Eastwood threatened on the break at the other end. However the Premier League outfit could not find a way through and it was Southend who knocked out the holders, progressing to the last eight of the competition.
6: Chelsea 1 Burnley 1 (Burnley win 5-4 on penalties) 2008
In the 2008/09 season Championship side Burnley reached the semi-finals of the Carling Cup, where they were knocked out by top-flight Tottenham Hotspur over two legs. On their way to the last four, Burnley beat Premier League leaders Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the Fourth Round in a dramatic penalty shootout.
Didier Drogba looked to set Chelsea on their way to the next round as expected when he finished expertly having been played in by Frank Lampard in the first half. However after the break Burnley fought their way back into the game and equalised through Ade Akinbiyi – sending the 6,000 travelling Clarets fans mad.
The game went into extra-time where Chelsea had a goal disallowed and missed several opportunities to win, but with no goal forthcoming the tie would be settled on penalties. After five-spot kicks each, both sides missed one and scored four before Michael Duff converted Burnley’s sixth. Jon Obi Mikel stepped up next for Chelsea and Clarets goalkeeper Brian Jensen made himself a hero, diving full length to his right to palm the effort away and send the second tier club into the next round.
5: Liverpool 1 Grimsby Town 2 2001
In the 2001/02 season, Division One side Grimsby Town pulled off a famous result at Anfield, knocking Worthington Cup holders Liverpool out of the competition in the third round. After a goalless 90 minutes, the match headed into extra-time and a David Beharall handball gave the hosts the chance to go in front from the penalty spot eleven minutes in. Gary McAllister slotted home the spot-kick, but in the second period of extra-time Grimsby hit back.
Centre-back Marlon Broomes volleyed a 113th minute equaliser in front of the travelling Grimsby support and, in amazing fashion it was the visitors who would take the lead late on. Liverpool were pushing for the winner but Town went up the other end where, from 35 yards out, Phil Jevons unleashed a piledriver which flew into the top corner of Chris Kirkland’s net. Jevons, a boyhood Liverpool fan, had joined the Mariners from Everton in pre-season and instantly became a hero at Blundell Park with an incredible 120th minute strike.
4: Arsenal 1 Walsall 2 1983
Fifty years before this 1983 Milk Cup fourth round tie, Walsall stunned Arsenal by beating them in the FA Cup and they would go on to do something similar at Highbury. At the time Arsenal were in trouble both on and off the pitch, with fans calling for manager Terry Neill to be sacked, however a home cup tie against Third Division Walsall should have provided some respite.
Things looked to be going to plan as Stewart Robson put the Gunners ahead just after the half hour, although Walsall were enjoying most of the play. The Saddlers got their reward fifteen minutes into the second half as Mark Rees netted after Ally Brown’s shot came out to him for the equaliser. Then with five minutes to go, the underdogs took the lead as David Preece’s left-wing cross was not dealt with by the Arsenal defence and the ball fell to Brown who slammed it high into the net to win the tie.
A great result for Walsall and their player-manager Alan Buckley as his side progressed to the quarter-finals. This result spelled the end of Neill’s tenure as Arsenal boss, paving the way for George Graham to take charge.
3: Liverpool 2 Northampton Town 2 (Northampton win 4-2 on penalties) 2010
In the third round of last season’s Carling Cup, Northampton Town pulled off arguably the shock of the tournament by knocking out Premier League Liverpool at Anfield. Reds boss Roy Hodgson made many changes to his side, picking mainly fringe players but they got off to a good start as Milan Jovanovic gave them the lead on nine minutes.
In the second half a Cobblers free-kick was knocked down to Billy McKay who rifled it into the roof of the net as the Town fans behind the goal celebrated wildly and that was how the scores remained after 90 minutes. Northampton, 17th in League Two and three divisions below their opponents, took the lead in extra-time when the ball broke to Michael Jacobs who stuck it into the top corner in front of the Kop. As the visitors sensed a famous victory, David Ngog equalised for Liverpool with four minutes left, to the relief of Hodgson and the Reds fans inside Anfield.
The match went to penalties and in the teaming rain, Town striker Stephen Guinan and Ngog missed their penalties before Nathan Eccleston hit Liverpool’s fifth against the crossbar to hand Northampton a chance of victory. Under great pressure, Abdul Osman stepped forward and sent Brad Jones the wrong way to clinch Town’s place in the fourth round – a great achievement from Ian Sampson’s side.
2: Manchester United 0 York City 3 1995
It is a great achievement for many sides to come away from Old Trafford with a win – for a fourth tier side to do it is quite remarkable, especially by the margin York City defeated Manchester United in the second round of the League Cup in 1995.
Alex Ferguson brought in some of his fringe players – including David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Phil Neville – alongside proven players like Ryan Giggs and Gary Pallister but they could not stop their visitors crusing to victory. Alan Little’s York took the lead through Paul Barnes’ deflected strike and in the second half Barnes doubled it from the penalty spot, before Tony Barras made it three from a header in front of a stunned Old Trafford crowd.
In the return leg United fielded a stronger lineup and levelled the tie – but conceded one goal to be knocked out 4-3 on aggregate in one of York’s greatest ever victories.
1: Swindon Town 3 Arsenal 1 1969
One of the greatest upsets in any English cup competition. The 1969 League Cup final pitted Third Division Swindon Town against First Division Arsenal, under the stewardship of Bertie Mee, who would lead them to the League and FA Cup double two years later. However Danny Williams’ Swindon were out to cause an upset in the showpiece match at Wembley.
It was the Robins who took a shock lead through Roger Smart after a mix-up in the Arsenal defence left goalkeeper Bob Wilson stranded, presenting Smart with an easy finish. Swindon held on until the 86th minute when goalkeeper Peter Downsborough failed to clear the ball and Bobby Gould punced to head home the equaliser and seemingly dash the underdog’s hopes of an upset. However in extra-time Swindon had the better of the play and regained the lead as Don Rogers netted after a corner was not cleared by the Gunners.
In the second period of extra-time Arsenal went forward in search of another equaliser but lost the ball and Swindon broke on the counter-attack. The ball was played through to Rogers who, in acres of space, carried the ball towards goal before cooly rounding Wilson to score and make it 3-1. Arsenal could not find a way back and it was Swindon who pulled off a famous victory, lifting major silverware for the first time in their history.
Written by Steven Toplis, We Are Going Up podcast member and blogger
Tweet Steven at @steven_toplis with your suggestions for Toppo’s Top Tens
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
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
The first day of the football season is always eagerly anticipated. The pitches are a lush green, the sun is shining and fans up and down the county are dreaming of a successful campaign, whether it be promotion or avoiding the drop. Nothing is decided on day one of course, but it is always good to get off to a winning start. Sometimes you can send out a statement of intent to your rivals or be caught in pre-season mode and find yourselves on the wrong end of a spanking. This week Toppo’s Top 10 looks at some of the more glorious and (for some) disasterous opening days in Football League history.
10: Bradford City 11 Rotherham United 1 – 1928
Kicking things off is an opening day defeat from nearly 80 years ago so bad it deserves a mention here. It was the first day of the 1928/29 Third Division (North) season with The Millers travelling 40 miles north to Valley Parade. They probably wished they hadn’t bothered as they returned home having been thrashed 11-1 – not surprisingly Bradford’s record home victory to date.
9: Queens Park Rangers 4 Barnsley 0 – 2010
Following a 13th placed Championship finish in 2009/10, QPR were placed amongst the favourites for promotion the season after, with Neil Warnock about to begin his first full season in charge and a squad assembled with bags of Championship experience. Warnock brought in eight new faces including Paddy Kenny, Shaun Derry, Jamie Mackie, Bradley Orr and the mercurial Moroccan Adel Taarabt, joining permanently from Tottenham having been on loan at Rangers the season before.
Barnsley were the visitors to Loftus Road as the season kicked-off on August 6th, 2010 and the Hoops dispatched their visitors with ease, setting the tone for the forthcoming campaign. Heidar Helguson put them in front from the penalty spot four minutes before the break, Mackie made it two and new captain Taarabt slotted home Rangers’ second penalty on 63 minutes for 3-0. The rout was completed when Hogan Ephraim laid on a tap in for Fitz Hall as Warnock’s side began the season in style, sitting top of the table. It was a position they would relinquish only twice during the campaign as they returned to the Premier League after 15 years away.
8: Notts County 5 Bradford City 0 – 2009
The summer of 2009 will go down as one of the most memorable in the history of Notts County. The club were taken over by Munto Finance, supposedly backed by mega-rich Middle Eastern owners who were going to take the Magpies into the Premier League within 5 seasons. Former England manager Sven Goran-Eriksson joined as Director of Football and after years in the doldrums, a bright new dawn had beckoned at Meadow Lane.
League Two County wasted no time assembling a squad capable of securing promotion, even bringing in former England defender Sol Campbell and Ian McParland’s men heralded the new era with a thumping display on the first day of the season. Ben Davies made it 1-0 on 17 minutes then new marksman Lee Hughes hit two in four minutes as Notts went 3-0 up by the break. Hughes secured a debut hat-trick from the penalty spot before Brendan Moloney’s fine solo strike capped off a fine team performance.
Unfortunately for County Munto’s takeover was based on false promises. The money was never forthcoming, Sol and Sven soon left and the club was on the brink of collapse. New owners came in to save the club who did get their promotion into League One at the end of a tumultuous campaign.
7: Walsall 4 West Bromwich Albion 1 – 2003
Paul Merson spent his latter playing career in Division One, helping Portsmouth to the title in 2003 before leaving to join Walsall, their fans hoping his magic touch could establish them as a force in the second tier. Merson’s debut could not have gone better, the ex-Arsenal man scoring a brace as the Saddlers demolished West Midlands rivals West Brom. Albion travelled to the Bescot on the opening day having just been relegated from the Premier League and Gary Megson’s plans for a swift return got off to the worst possible start.
A record crowd at the Bescot saw their side out of reach by half-time, Merson breaking the deadlock with a sweet right-foot volley which flew past Russell Hoult and into the top corner. The midfielder made it two with a drive which crashed in off the bar then just before half-time Jorge Leitao bagged number three as he tapped home after Simon Osborn’s shot hit the post. Former Wolves midfielder Steve Corica made the game safe 12 minutes after the break as Saddlers fans basked in the warm August sunshine, the only blot on their team’s day coming as Jason Koumas netted a consolation goal for Albion.
In February 2004 Merson was handed the manager’s role at Walsall following the sacking of Colin Lee but could not prevent the club from being relegated to Division Two on the final day of the season.
6: Chelsea 5 Derby County 0 – 1983
A game from back in the days when Chelsea were an second tier team! In the summer leading up to the 1983/84 season, Blues boss John Neal made several signings including Pat Nevin, Nigel Spackman, John Hollins and prolific frontman Kerry Dixon. The new faces inspired Neal’s side to a 5-0 demolition of Derby County on the season’s first day at Stamford Bridge.
Spackman put Chelsea ahead after just four minutes, Chris Walker made it two after the break and Chris Hutchings netted a third not long after. Dixon then plundered his first two Chelsea goals on 63 and 68 minutes to complete the rout. The win set the tone for Chelsea’s season as they finished top of the Second Division – with a 5-3 win at Fulham plus 5-0 victories over Leeds United and Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle United along the way – Dixon top-scoring with 36 goals.
On paper a 2-1 win may not seem too remarkable but the significance of the day makes it a match few Seagulls fans will forget in a hurry. Since the club’s owners controversially sold the club’s Goldstone Ground in 1997, they have spent 14 years waiting for a new stadium to call home, playing their games at Gillingham’s Priestfield Stadium and the Withdean Stadium.
Construction finally began on a new ground in 2008 and earlier this year the club were finally handed the keys to the £100 million AMEX Stadium ahead of the 2011/12 campaign. Gus Poyet led the Seagulls to the League One title last season meaning the club would be hosting Championship football in their state-of-the-art arena.
Doncaster Rovers were the first visitors as emotional Brighton fans created a great atmosphere, 22,000 waving flags long before the teams entered the field. Doncaster netted the first league goal at the ground, Billy Sharp’s partially-blocked effort crawling over the line to give the visitors the lead.
It seemed as if Doncaster would spoil the party, however on 83 minutes they failed to clear a Brighton set-piece and the ball fell to Seagulls new signing Will Buckley, who hit a crisp, low volley from the edge of the area into the bottom corner to level matters. Injuries to Doncaster’s James Hayter and goalscorer Sharp saw eight minutes of added time at the end of the second half and Rovers forced to play with 10 men after they used all their substitutes.
Brighton took full advantage as former Watford winger Buckley broke forward and curled home a 98th minute winner. There were scenes of jubilation as Brighton secured a dramatic first victory at the AMEX, fans and players celebrating wildly.
4: Newcastle United 5 Leeds United 2 – 1989
On the opening day fans get the chance of seeing their club’s new signings for the first time and in 1989, debutant Micky Quinn put on a show in front of over 40,000 Newcastle United followers.
Leeds United were the visitors to St.James’ Park as Jim Smith’s Magpies faced Second Division football after relegation from the top flight two months before. Quinn was signed for £680,000 from Portsmouth, having hit 54 goals in 121 appearances for the South Coast club and soon got on the scoresheet for his new employers, along with fellow debutant John Gallagher. Leeds led 2-1 but the big centre-forward put the game out of reach of Howard Wilkinson’s men, hitting 4 goals on his first appearance for the club. He went on to net 34 times in the league that season, making him the top scorer in England by a distance.
According to his autobiography, after scoring his fourth Quinn ran towards the crowd shouting, “That’s who f*****g Mick Quinn is, that’s who f*****g Mick Quinn is, *****g Come on!”
Nobody told him that he was screaming at the family enclosure full of children.
3: Brentford 4 Leyton Orient 3 – 1991
At the start of the 1991/92 Division Three season, London sides Brentford and Leyton Orient played out a thriller at Griffin Park. Future Wimbledon and Bolton striker Dean Holdsworth put the Bees in front just before the break. Orient equalised in the second half then went in front as Kevin Nugent nodded home Ricky Otto’s left-wing cross.
Holdsworth made it 2-2 straight from the restart, pouncing on a rebound after Richard Cadette’s shot was saved. The frontman then bagged his hat-trick, latching onto Terry Evans’ long ball forward and slotting a composed finish past the goalkeeper. Orient weren’t out of it and Ricky Otto again put a teasing cross in from the left which Andy Sayer converted for 3-3.
That wasn’t the last of the goals as Brentford went in front again. A set-piece was floated into the penalty area, centre-back Evans met the ball with a header which looped over the ‘keeper into the far corner of the net to make the score 4-3 to The Bees. An amazing opening day match that kick-started a promotion campaign for Brentford, which saw them win the league and boast the top scorer in Holdsworth, who netted 38 goals.
2: Millwall 0 Rotherham United 6 – 2002
An incredible scoreline from the New Den on the opening day of the old Division One in 2002. Millwall lost in the previous season’s play-off semi-finals while the Millers just escaped relegation – but it was the hosts who were left stunned.
Ex-Walsall striker Darren Byfield started the rout, powerfully heading home Paul Warne’s cross. Lions goalkeeper Tony Warner then gifted the visitors their second as he let Martin McIntosh’s 35-yard free-kick squirm through his grasp and over the line. After the break Millwall capitulated, hesitation in their defence allowing Byfield to make it 3-0.
Despite going forward in search of goals, Millwall conceded a fourth when Chris Sedgwick cut in from the right to score then Byfield completed his hat-trick with ten minutes to go, chipping the ball over Warner from the edge of the penalty area. Sixty seconds later he had another as he rounded the goalie and slotted home a sixth goal for Ronnie Moore’s side. Unbelievable stuff.
1: Norwich City 1 Colchester United 7 – 2009
It can be argued that this game was a watershed moment in the recent history of Norwich City. Having been relegated to the third tier of English football for the first time since 1960, the Canaries were instantly placed amongst the favourites for an immediate return to the Championship. With legendary former goalkeeper Bryan Gunn in charge and new signings arriving at the club in pre-season, it was expected that they would get their League One campaign off to a good start.
Their first game of the season, at Carrow Road against Colchester United, was a disaster as they slumped to an incredible 7-1 home defeat. Kevin Lisbie put the U’s in front after 10 minutes, scoring after a mistake by Canaries goalie Michael Theoklitos. Clive Platt made it two then grabbed another soon afterwards with a back-post finish. David Fox bent home a free-kick before Lisbie’s second goal, a header, meant Norwich were five down after just 38 minutes with their fans already heading for the exits, two even ran on the pitch and threw their season tickets at manager Gunn.
In the second-half Cody McDonald grabbed a consolation but David Perkins’ volley and Scott Vernon’s tap-in set the seal on a fantastic result for Paul Lambert’s team, inflicting Norwich’s worst home defeat in their 109-year history.
Within a week of the game Bryan Gunn was sacked and Norwich turned to the man who masterminded Colchester’s thumping win – ex-Scotland international midfielder Paul Lambert. Aided by the 24 league goals from Grant Holt, Lambert turned the club’s season around as they won the League One title. He then went even further, guiding them to 2nd place in the Championship and a second successive promotion in 2010/11 – meaning that just two years after one of their darkest days, Norwich City will be playing Premier League football this coming season.
Written by Steven Toplis, We Are Going Up Blogger
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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