I said, in a rare piece of commentary, at the start of the football season, that “the road to Wembley starts here.” It was an optimistic look forward to a hoped-for season of long cup-runs and league success for Walsall FC.
Just before last season started, the Saddlers staged a pre-season open training session on the Banks’s Stadium pitch. I interviewed the manager Dean Smith as part of the programme for the day.
I had arranged for the theme from the Superman movies to be played on the public address system as the Ginger Mourinho walked on to the pitch in recognition of his achievements during his first half-season in charge. He had taken over the manager’s job when our relegation was all-but guaranteed; yet he turned the Saddlers’ fortunes around and secured League One Football on the last game of the season during a never-to-be-forgotten match at Southampton which saw the South-Coast team promoted as champions.
Deano was surprised and taken aback and somewhat embarrassed by the choice of music; but I told him to make the most of it – football managers’ tend not to remain popular for long; and certainly not at Walsall!
Last season we had a similar Great Escape – securing our place in N’Power League One for another season – this time at the last-but-one match of the season. In the weeks that followed there was a clear-out and a half; with the Saddlers beginning this season with a host of new players – very few of them household names even amongst the most die-hard of football fans.
My overly-optimistic prediction at the start of the season that Walsall would enjoy several cup-runs this year has come to nothing. And, after starting the season off well, we went on an unfortunate run of 16 matches without a win.
We played some good attractive football during that run, but we were not consistent; and we we did not play well enough – certainly not for the full 90-minutes plus stoppage time necessary to win matches.
Things began to change around Christmas-time. We started winning matches – and not by flukey results against the run of play. We have a team of players who are committed to each other and to the manager; and they are terrorising the opposition.
The fans have seen improvements in the entire team: from the defence, through the midfield and including the forwards. But it is the strike-force that will always get noticed; and Will Grigg, Febian Brandy and Jamie Patterson are an exciting combination that work well together to deliver the goods.
Walsall currently top the form table for the entire four professional leagues. In the 14 matches beginning with the victory over Colchester on 22nd December, the Saddlers have won 10, drawn two and lost two; a run of form that earned Dean Smith the League One Manager of the Month award for January.This is dangerous territory. The fans have begun openly speaking of the P word. And why not? We’re currently five points off the play-off places with 10 games left. We may yet get to play at Wembley in the first time in our history. But while we’re all busy eyeing up the play-off places I wonder how many have looked further north and noticed that we’re only nine points off the automatic promotion places with 30 points left to play for.
So, why is this dangerous territory?
It’s dangerous because this current team of players are at real risk of becoming Walsall legends.
Players come and go. At a club like Walsall they come and go quite often as it’s a club with quite a high-turnover of players. But this year is different. The club has already begun its planning for the future and a significant number of the current squad have agreed extensions to their contracts.
Longevity at a club is a necessary first-step towards legend status; but so is performance on the field. And, as I’ve said the boys are performing. The excitement is palpable: the fans are responding to the players and coming back in droves: the average attendance for the last five home games is up 23 per cent on the average for the first five of the season.
Whether or not the club achieves promotion this season, the groundwork is being laid for an exciting season ahead: exciting football, a return to winning ways, an increase in the number of fans coming through the turnstiles and the signing of extended contracts by a significant number of players.
We need to keep this momentum going. If we do – and if more of the players in this squad commit to next year – then it is highly likely that in years to Walsall fans will talk with pride about Dean Smith’s Glory Years.
This is the stuff from which legends are made.