Ahead of the Vale game, Walsall fans reflect on what they consider to be a “missed opportunity” as a brilliant start by Dean Smith was derailled by a disastrous Sean O’Driscoll spell…
About the fans…
We-ARE-Walsall: I have been following Walsall for 35 years. My Dad took me to my first game at Fellows Park when I was 5 and I instantly fell in love with it. Firstly I think because I wanted to be with and be like my Dad, but it soon became something I just loved.
I could easily write a book of tales about our time following Walsall, a lot of which have nothing at all to do with anything that happened on a football pitch. Following Walsall has always been much more than that to me.
I have children of my own, and other commitments, but I still get to 70% of games home and away. I have started to take both of my boys aged three and five this season, and they both have their very first season tickets for next season.
I could easily write a book of tales about our time following Walsall, a lot of which have nothing at all to do with anything that happened on a football pitch…
Just to add: six of us did a charity walk from Bescot Stadium to Vale Park, for our game in April 2014. The Vale fans were extremely generous and welcoming. Given the rivalry between the two clubs over the years, I thought that was fantastic, and reinforced what I always believed, that when it really comes to it, football fans come together.
BELGIANSADDLER: I’ve been a supporter since the late 70’s. I go to more away than home these days but I’m a total fanatic. I’ve always considered Vale and Shrewsbury as our true rivals.
My dislike for Vale was slightly changed a couple of years ago when me and a few others did a sponsored walk to Vale in aid of fund for Julie Skidmore, a life-long Walsall fan who lost her battle against cancer. When we got to Vale Park we expected the usual animosity but the Vale fans and stewards were massively generous in their donations and pushed the fund up by a fair few hundred quid. Respect!
How are Walsall doing?
I now feel a bit frustrated about what “might have been” in a few matches, but I suppose every fan is the same…
We-ARE-Walsall: Before a ball was kicked, a good go at the play-offs would have been a reasonable goal but it has turned out to be a strange season.
We started like a house on fire, there were noticeable differences about our team. Bradshaw, who had scored 20 goals the previous season, looked sharper than ever. The talented Sawyers looked like he had come of age. Most of all though, we had attacking full backs/wing backs. It soon became clear that defender Rico Henry was also a player with big potential. It is also worth stating, that Dean Smith was a huge part of all the changes regarding recruitment, bringing young players through, and also developing our style of play, in which we aimed to play “the right way.”
Dean Smith and Richard O’Kelly left for Brentford in December. Personally I never thought it would be a huge problem at the time, as long as we were sensible with the new appointment. When we appointed Sean O’Driscoll, I felt that was a great appointment. He said the right things, and early signs were good. But as time went on he seemed to want more and more to assert his authority as the man in charge. This is fair enough, but it was clear that the players weren’t playing for him in the same way they had for Dean Smith. He had drained the life out of it all, and it seemed beyond repair with his stubbornness.
I must admit I was surprised by his dismissal, but happy at the same time. At the beginning of the season, any Walsall fan would have taken the play-offs in a heartbeat, but I can’t help feeling if we don’t pull off the miracle on Sunday, we have missed a golden opportunity, that was really there for us. It’s the weakest League One for some years in my opinion this season.
BELGIANSADDLER: Whatever happens this season has surpassed my expectations. I didn’t expect to be in with a chance of automatic promotion, or even the play-offs to be honest. But the way our season has developed has increased expectations. I now feel a bit frustrated about what “might have been” in a few matches, but I suppose every fan is the same.
Where do you think you’ll finish?
We-ARE-Walsall: Obviously with all of my heart and soul I hope it is second, but it is out of our hands, and will take a mini miracle, but I am still hoping. Realistically I am going to go for third.
BELGIANSADDLER: Second, obviously! 😀
Who should we watch out for?
We-ARE-Walsall: This season though we have had a number of consistent performers. Romaine Sawyers is without doubt our most talented player and plays behind the lone striker in a free role. That striker will be Tom Bradshaw who is a good finisher and a constant manace to defenders. However, for me, defender James O’Connor has been the player of the season. There are several other players that are worth of mentions: Rico Henry and Jason Demetriou in the full back/wing back roles have been superb, and Adam Chambers in midfield is a consistant performer too.
BELGIANSADDLER: Romaine Sawyers.
How’s the manager doing?
The jury is still out if he is man to take us forward long-term…
We-ARE-Walsall: Former physio Jon Whitney seems to be in touch with supporters more than most Walsall managers have been. He is very big on the motivational front, you can tell he has passion about what he is doing. Tactically he is obviously not going to be a master yet, but I would like us to stick with him, and give him time to develop in the same way as we did with Dean Smith. You can’t really argue with his record so far and the feeling it really matters to him as much as it does to us, is really refreshing to see in a manager. All of the players seem to respect him, so I am hopeful he can go on and have a good stretch as Walsall manager, and continue the work that Dean Smith started.
BELGIANSADDLER: He’s massively enthusiastic and he has already proven he is a Saddler many times over. The jury is still out if he is man to take us forward long term and he needs experienced support to help him with tactics and so on.
How’s the board doing?
This was a key moment, when some supporters claimed they would never go again whilst Bonser was at the club…
We-ARE-Walsall: You don’t know what a can of worms you are opening here! I will try to give a balanced view, but you must understand that this is a topic of continual debate amongst Walsall fans. Some would have you believe Jeff Bonser is the Anti-Christ himself. It all began with a move from Fellows Park to Bescot Stadium. I’m not really qualified enough to go in to it in too much detail, but to put it in simple terms, without over complicating it, the club don’t own the ground or the land we play on, so we have to pay Bonser rent for the privilege. I believe that statement to be correct as I see it. There has been much debate and anger about this over the years.
On the flip side. Personally I think Bonser has run the club well, and within in its means over the years. Much to the frustration of some fans who thought we should be shelling out transfer fees, and bigger wages. On the gates we get, you have to be realistic. We have had some of our most successful times ever in this period and that shouldn’t be forgotten.
In January 2008 when we were challenging for promotion to the Championship, Scott Dann and Danny Fox were both sold to Coventry. The sale of Dann in particular sparked an outrage as he was sold on the very last second of deadline day. Our promotion challenge slowly started to falter, and our then manager Richard Money walked, claiming the club didn’t match his ambitions. This was a key moment, when some supporters claimed they would never go again whilst Bonser was at the club. They were nicknamed “stayaways.” I believe some to this day have stuck by this stance.
Since then, there have been some new faces behind the scenes, that have done a lot to try and build bridges between the club and supporters, which has worked to a certain extent. The club definitely has a better vision of where it is going and how it is going to do it than before, for sure. That elephant in the room – the rent – isn’t going away any time soon and who knows how it will affect the long term future of Walsall Football Club.
BELGIANSADDLER: No comment. It’s a long story. But the current staff have improved the relationship with fans.
Did you attend the reverse fixture earlier this season?
We-ARE-Walsall: I did, yes. It was around the time when O’Driscoll took charge, and was one of the games that made us think we had found the right man. Well, it didn’t last long, but it was nice while it lasted, and three points against Vale is always sweet.
Any views on people connected with both clubs?
It is the only time I have ever seen and heard a manager get a standing ovation after being relegated…
We-ARE-Walsall: Ray Graydon was a coach under John Rudge at Vale before he took the hot seat at Walsall. What happened during the 1998-99 season was nothing short of a miracle. We were favourites for relegation, but somehow Ray moulded together a patchwork quilt of a team, on a shoe string budget, that managed to finish above Manchester City in second place with two games to spare. I think this will forever be my favourite season as a Walsall fan, as it was all so unexpected.
The following season we were relegated on the last day, it is the only time I have ever seen and heard a manager get a standing ovation after being relegated. With the budget and team we had that season, we should have been down by Christmas, but such was the fight in this man and his players, we took it right the way to the last game of the season.
Ray will forever be a Walsall legend and we will never be forgot what he did. it wasn’t just the onfield success he gave us, he gave us a sense of pride and a togetherness between the players and the fans. It was little old Walsall against the world, and more often than not we defied the odds and came out on top.
BELGIANSADDLER: Kenny Beach was a great little player!
A score prediction?
We-ARE-Walsall: I am going to make this nice and simple. 2-0 win for the Saddlers, Bradshaw bagging both the goals in the last five minutes, as we wait for confirmation that Burton have lost at Doncaster. If you don’t have a dream…
BELGIANSADDLER: A plus three points difference between us beating you and Donny beating Burton!