- England's young lions to roar at Walsall's Banks's stadium again
All (footballing) thoughts in Walsall are on Tuesday night’s game at the Banks’s in which the Saddlers will take a 2-0 lead over Preston North End into the second leg of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Northern Area Final. The prize for the aggregate winners is a visit to Wembley for the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Final.
If the Saddlers do it; we will end the longest wait in English professional football: only four teams in the four English professional leagues have never been to Wembley. Of those, with a 127-years history – the Saddlers have waited the longest.
So it is somewhat appropriate that while Walsall are dreaming of playing at the home of English football; England are preparing to play at Walsall.
England’s U18s will return to the Banks’s Stadium on Saturday 28 March to take on Switzerland; with a 5.30pm kick-off. With tickets priced at just £3 for adults and £1.50 for concessions; this is a very cheap opportunity to sample the Saddlers’ award-winning hospitality while watching the future stars of English football.
The squad won’t be named until nearer the time; but thefa.com report that it could include “a number of last season’s European U17 Championship winners such as England’s youth player of the year, Chelsea’s Dominic Solanke and Everton’s Ryan Ledson.”
“We are really fortunate and have an abundance of players in this age group,” U18 head coach Neil Dewsnip told thefa.com. “We have counted up six or seven that weren’t with us [in the side’s last matches in Poland], who you could argue would be in a starting eleven, so we are really lucky. That’s very healthy, not only for England but the boys themselves. If they take anything for granted, then they won’t be in the next squad.”
He added: “We have Switzerland lined up for the next international break, which will provide another challenge for the group.
“It’s an important time for the squad, they need to remain focussed and keep improving.”
Tickets go on sale from Monday and will be available online; by phone: 01922 – 651414 or 651414; or in person from the Banks’s Stadium ticket office.
- Que Sera Sera - Are Walsall going to Wembley?
Is this the year? Can we start to believe? Will the Saddlers make their first-ever visit to Wembley in the club’s 126-year-history?
This morning, the draw has been made for the Area Finals of the Johnstone Paint Trophy; and it has been good for Walsall: we play the first leg away at either Preston North End or Notts County. That means that we will be playing at home for the all-important second leg at which the matter will be decided.
With such a massive prize – our first ever visit to Wembley – I expect the Banks’s Stadium to be full to the rafters for the game, which will be played week commencing 2nd February (subject to any FA Cup commitments of Preston North End if they beat Notts County in their Area Semi-Final match).
Anybody following this week’s match away to Tranmere – either one of the 600-or-so Saddlers’ fans who made the trip to Prenton Park; or listening on the radio like me – must have thought twice that the dream was over for another year. Firstly, we went 2-0 down; but the lads didn’t let their heads drop and bagged a couple of goals to draw us level; but then there was the dreaded penalty shoot-out: something that we never seem to do well with (it was our first penalty shoot out victory in more than 10 years).
When Tranmere keeper Owain Fôn Williams stooped to his right to stop Ashley Grimes’ spot kick it looked like it was all over. But not so: Walsall hung on and when Saddlers’ vice-captain Paul Downing scored the winning penalty he sent a wave of ecstasy amongst the Saddlers supporters behind the goal and amongst those listening on the radio or watching online.
When Sky Sports televised our recent Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Northern Area Quarter Final match against Sheffield United they brought the Trophy along for the cameras. I managed to grab a cheeky pic of it thanks to Saddlers’ snapper David Linney.
I’ve got a feeling that it will be coming back to Walsall this Season – and, hopefully, on the top of an open-top bus! We shouldn’t get complacent: we’ve still got to beat Preston or Notts County (the Magpies please) over two legs; and then face either Bristol or Gillingham in the final.
But whatever happens, this is certainly a good time to be a Saddler and I hope that the fans turn up in numbers to cheer us on: firstly on Saturday against Barnsley in will be our first home game in over a month; and then over the Christmas and New Year matches as we build up to the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy Northern Area Final.
- Walsall manager Dean Smith on transfers, injuries, pre-season games, and the season ahead
This morning the Walsall squad were put through their paces by manager Dean Smith, head coach Richard O’Kelly and Physio Jon Whitney at an open training session on the Banks’s Stadium pitch.
It is a simple idea that the club has run a few times now in recent years and, as always, it began with a short interview with the manager Dean Smith and ended with the players signing autographs and posing for photos and selfies with the Saddlers’ faithful.
In the interview, I asked Dean about players’ comings and goings; about the pre-season campaign, about the fans and about his hopes for the season ahead.
If you couldn’t make it this morning, you can listen again to the interview by clicking the link below.
- The Step-Over King to hang up his boots
The word legend is often overused – particularly when it comes to footballers. Of course, fans will have their favourites, especially when it comes to former players; but while most former players are still held with affection, and have names that conjour up remarkable memories, not many deserve the title “legend”.
But sometimes the word is well and truly deserved; and that’s most certainly the case with Chris Marsh and his association with Walsall FC. Chris “Mad Dog” Marsh, otherwise known as the Step-Over King, made over 470 appearances for the Saddlers between 1998 and 2001; and he helped the club to two promotions during that time – in 1995 and 1999.
Since retiring from professional football, Marshy has been a regular at the Banks’s Stadium both as a fan, and also in charity games and other matches featuring the Saddlers’ All-Stars. But now, at the age of 44, he has decided to hang up his boots for good, but not before turning out one last time in aid of two good causes.
The Wiltshire-based telecommunications consultancy, Cat Communications, has a long association with the Saddlers, culminating in them becoming the shirt sponsors. That commercial association is coming to an end; but like Marshy, not before another outing in aid of the good causes.
Both endings come this Thursday with the Cat Communications charity game at the Banks’s Stadium which will see a the Mad Dogs – a team of Walsall All Stars, captained by Chris Marsh, take on the Cool Cats – a team comprised of Cat Communications’ staff and Walsall FC supporters.
Admission to the game, which takes place this Thursday, 22nd May at 7.30pm, costs just £2 for adults and £1 for concessions. All proceeds will go to the Last Chance Hotel Animal Rescue charity and the Balls to Cancer campaign against testicular cancer.
Not only will it be an opportunity to see Chris Marsh play his last ever game at the Banks’s Stadium, it will be an opportunity to see again former stars such as Zigor Aranalde, Adrian Viveah, Ian Roper, Darren Wrack, David Kelly and Stuart Ryder alongside current management duo Richard O’Kelley and the Ginger Mourinho himself, Dean Smith.
And former Walsall full back Kris Taylor, part of the memorable team that won the League Two title in 2007, and now playing with Hednesford Town, will make an emotional return to the Banks’s where his own fight against testicular cancer this year has been marked with sustained applause by Saddlers’ fans during the 15th minute of each match since his diagnosis emerged in January.
The game has been billed as “the biggest gathering of former players for some time.” And, once again, it takes place this Thursday, 22nd May, at 7.30pm. Admission is £2 for adults and £1 for concessions.
I hope to see you there for what promises to be a great evening of entertainment and an opportunity to raise funds for some very worthy causes.
- Black Country’s European football bank holiday festival (also applies to East Mids)
If you’re wondering what to do during the next Bank Holiday, I’ve got just the solution: England has been chosen as the venue for the Group 1 matches of this year’s European Championships and the matches take place at Walsall’s Banks’s Stadium and Burton Albion’s Pirelli Stadium over the Bank Holiday (half term) week.
There are seven groups in the UEFA U19 Elite Qualifying Rounds (to give the competition its full name) and Group 1 will see England take on Scotland, Ukraine and Montenegro.
The mini-tournament kicks off at 3.00pm on Saturday 24th May when England take on Montenegro in Walsall; later in the evening, at 7.30pm, Scotland face Ukraine in Burton.
On Bank Holiday Monday, 26th May, Montenegro will play Ukraine in Walsall (3.00pm) before England and Scotland go head to head in Burton (7.30pm).
Finally, on Thursday 29th May, Scotland will play Montenegro at Walsall while Ukraine take on England at Burton (both matches 3.00pm) with all teams hoping they’ve done enough to qualify.
Just one team from each group will qualify to join the hosts for the finals of the competition, which will be held in Hungary from 19th to 31st July. And in addition to competing to get their hands on the UEFA U19 cup, the teams are also fighting for places in next year’s FIFA U20 World Cup in New Zealand. Teams will need to finish in the top six of the UEFA competition to qualify for New Zealand.
Don’t write this off as kid’s football – the Under-19’s squads feature some very promising up-and-coming talent. England’s preliminary squad includes the young Manchester United striker James Wilson who bagged a brace on his Premier League debut against Hull City earlier this month.
Four Chelsea players – Lewis Baker, John Swift, Ola Aina and Ruben Loftus-Cheek – make the squad; alongside Arsenal’s Chuba Akpom, Southampton’s Sam Gallagher, and Charlton’s Diego Poyet.
Admission is incredibly cheap: just £3 for adults; and £1.50 for concessions.
The Black Country is a footballing hotspot – and there’s equally strong footballing support over in the East Midlands. While the England matches will be obvious draws I hope that all the matches in this Elite Qualifying Round attracts large crowds to cheer on young players who have the potential to become future global footballing stars.
UEFA U19 Championships
Group 1 Matches
24 May 2014
England v Montenegro (3pm) – Walsall
Ukraine v Scotland (7.30pm) – Burton
26 May 2014
Montenegro v Ukraine (3pm) – Walsall
England v Scotland (7.30pm) – Burton
29 May 2014
Scotland v Montenegro (3pm) – Walsall
Ukraine v England (3pm) – Burton
For tickets, call:
Walsall matches: 01922 651414 or 01922 651416
Burton matches: 01283 565938
Group 2 (24-29 May): Czech Republic, Sweden, Italy, Bulgaria*
Group 3 (25-30 May): Georgia, Israel, Switzerland*, Cyprus
Group 4 (28 May-2 June): Serbia (holders), Republic of Ireland*, Turkey, Iceland
Group 5 (31 May-5 June): Spain*, Germany, Denmark, Lithuania
Group 6 (5-10 June): Russia, Austria, Norway, Romania*
Group 7 (28 May-2 June): Portugal*, Belgium, Greece, Wales
The Preliminary England Squad
(The preliminary squad will meet for training camp between Tuesday 13th and Thursday 15th May; before the final squad of 18 is selected ahead of training, which begins next Sunday, 18th May.)
Goalkeepers: Mitchell Beeney (Chelsea), Christian Walton (Brighton & Hove Albion).
Defenders: Ola Aina (Chelsea), Dominic Ball (Tottenham Hotspur), Calum Chambers (Southampton), Shay Facey (Manchester City), Brendan Galloway (MK Dons), Lloyd Jones (Liverpool), Matthew Targett (Southampton).
Midfielders: Lewis Baker (Chelsea), Isaac Hayden (Arsenal), Ruben Loftus-Cheek (Chelsea), Ben Pearson (Manchester United), Diego Poyet (Charlton Athletic), Harrison Reed (Southampton), John Swift (Chelsea).
Forwards: Chuba Akpom (Arsenal), Devante Cole (Manchester City), Sam Gallagher (Southampton), Jordon Ibe (Liverpool), Josh Murphy (Norwich City), Callum Robinson (Aston Villa), James Wilson (Manchester United).
For tickets, call:
Walsall matches: 01922 651414 or 01922 651416
Burton matches: 01283 565938
- Backing #TeamGethin as Walsall's quiet man defends British lightweight title
Walsall boxer Martin Gethin will fight to retain his British lightweight title when he takes on former champion Derry Mathews at the Liverpool Olympia tonight.
The 30-year-old challenger told the Liverpool Echo that defeat tonight would result in his retirement; but Walsall’s Quiet Man, Martin Gethin, is equally keen to retain it.
“Winning the British title was the greatest night of my boxing career, he told the Express and Star. For me, it’s one of the best belts in world boxing. I have no plans on giving it up.”
Gethin is no stranger to fans of Walsall Football Club, having made numerous half-time on-pitch appearances in recent years. I’m backing #TeamGethin tonight and I’m looking forward to welcoming the Saddlers’ fanatic back onto the pitch early next season so we can join with him in celebrating his success.
Walsall is becoming something of a boxing town and it’s good to see recent bouts at the Town Hall attracting national television coverage.
The next fight-night is next Friday – 16th May – when the Midlands light-middleweight champion Jason Welborn, from Rowley Regis; and Bloxwich’s Luke Paddock take on opposition from Romania – with Welborn facing Stanislav Nenkov; and Paddock seeking to add victory over Kristian Dochev to extend his unbeaten run to seven.
Welborn and Paddock took time out of their preparations last month to join me on the Banks’s Stadium pitch at half time during the Gillingham game, were they presented cheques, on behalf of Walsall FC, to two local boxing clubs: Amphion ABC, based in Darlaston; and Pleck ABC, based in, well – Pleck, actually! The money was part of the distributions from this year’s Community Shield match between Man Utd and Wigan Athletic.
Good luck and best wishes tonight to Martin Gethin; and next week to Jason Welborn and Luke Paddock.
- I'm looking for a woman!
Recent matches at the Banks’s Stadium have seen the return of the half-time Crossbar Challenge, where four fans have a chance to win a 2014/15 season ticket simply by hitting the crossbar with a ball kicked from the edge of the D.
We’ve had numerous near misses, some very wide misses, plenty of goals and one winner so far. What we haven’t had is any female contestants – and I know that the Saddlers have plenty of female supporters.
If you’d like to take part in the Crossbar Challenge and compete for one of next year’s season tickets, send me an email with your contact details and I’ll randomly select contestants to take part. Alternatively, if we don’t have enough contestants for a particular match you’ll find me wandering around the perimeter of the pitch around 25 minutes before kick-off looking for willing volunteers.
You don’t have to be female to take part: men are still more than welcome. But whether you’re male or female, make sure you’re wearing suitable footwear – stilettos won’t help you reach the crossbar!
We currently plan to run the competition at every one of our remaining home fixtures, so if you can’t make this Saturday’s match against Bristol City let me know in your email when you will be there.
And good luck to everybody taking part.
- Walsall's Open Training Session returns!
Dean Smith, Richard O’Kelly, Neil Cutler, Jon Whitney and the rest of the coaching team of Walsall Football Club will be putting the players through their paces at another open training session at the Banks’s Stadium later this month.
The club has run this free event several times over the past three seasons and it has proved to be extremely popular – not least because admission is free and the players will spend time chatting with fans, signing autographs and posing for photos – even selfies – after the training session is over.
The main stand turnstiles will open at around 10.30am on Monday 14th April, and at 11.00am I’ll interview Dean Smith about the season so far, whether the play-offs are a realistic target finish, and about his hopes for next season. He’ll then explain what the players will be doing during the training session before that gets underway at around 11.15am. Around an hour later, and the players will come to the stand to chat with the fans.
If you’ve got a burning question that you want to ask Dean Smith, this is your chance! I’ll have space to ask two or three questions suggested by the fans, so I can’t guarantee that your question will be asked; but do send me an email me with your question and it may well get picked.
These open training sessions have proved to be very popular not only with dads and lads; but also with mums and girls too. Whether that’s because it’s an opportunity to meet the players and have a chat in a relaxed atmosphere; or because the kiosks sell sausage and bacon butties, I’ll let you decide.