Bescot Stadium will soon celebrate its 20th anniversary. It was opened in the summer of 1990 but the story of Walsall FC’s move to a ‘brand new stadium’ from a homely but decaying Fellows Park goes back a lot longer as you will see as we look back on the long road to Bescot.
In 1970 it became public that the board discussed the prospect of a ‘multi-sports stadium’ on a proposed site at Bentley along the M6 near to Junction 10. It was very much a rough plan but it did get as far as an artist’s impression being drawn up but it was eventually thrown out by the council as it was deemed to be ‘too near’ to the motorway! At the turn of the 1970′s Walsall FC had a bank overdraft and debts well over the £150,000 mark.
Around March 1981 it emerged that talks were going on between the club and the council with ambitious plans to turn Fellows Park into into a multi-purpose stadium complete with a DIY store. A Walsall Council Planning Officer said they were discussing “Matters of principal” with agents of the football club. However there were fears as to how such a development would affect local shopping centres. The plan involved demolishing 20 terrace-type homes in Wallows Lane and Hillary Street near to the ground and the alterations would include changing the position of the pitch and erecting new stands to SEAT 17,000! Two new car parks could be built and some land used for a DIY store.
Around a year later it was announced that Walsall FC had won its fight for the new stadium and it was suggested that work on it could start in the close season. It also emerged that the club may have to groundshare with either West Bromwich Albion or Wolverhampton Wanderers whilst the work could be completed.The club also claimed they were contemplating staging Rugby League games there. However just before the end of the season there was a major bombshell when club chairman Ken Wheldon wanted the club to simply groundshare with Wolves-the very thought! Understandably this move caused a lot of unrest amongst the Walsall fans and a Save Walsall Action Group (SWAG) was set up and one of its leaders was a certain Barrie Blower who organised a protest march through the town and on to Fellows Park for the last home match of the season.
In November 1982, Walsall FC drew up more ‘ambitious plans’ to sell Fellows Park and move into a new ‘multi-purpose stadium just 200 yards away on the council-owned sports field in the nearby Broadway West. Building costs were estimated at £2.5 million but there were objections from residents and also from Barrie Blower who accused Wheldon of ‘asset stripping’.
In the summer of of 1983 Wheldon was hopeful of talks between the club and the council over a proposed move to Green Lane near the power station however by the December of that year the focus had changed to build a stadium on land off Bentley Lane and Bloxwich Lane taking in a part of Reedswood Park. On 31.3.1984 the Express And Star claimed that Fellows Park has been sold for commercial development subject to planning permission for a new site. In May 1985 a new site emerged from the usual two of either re-vamping Fellows Park or the fixation of moving somewhere near the Bentley area as Wheldon and Council leaders suggested that the club could have a new multi-purpose built stadium ….in Bescot Crescent.
Following the Bradford fire disaster in May 1985, along with all lower division clubs, Walsall were made to implement the new strict safety standards that summer. Walsall FC was hit with a four-page safety report by council chiefs for work to be carried out in the close season. Particular attention was needed to make the main stand safe. Between £60,000 and £100,000 was believed to be spent on this project and the capacity of the ground had been slashed.
An expensive excercise that had to be done for us to kick off the 1985-86 season but long term of course it was seen by the club as money wasted and now more than ever they could see the urgent need to find that new stadium …or make alternative plans.
In the October of that year the supporters worst nightmares surfaced again when it emerged the Chairman of Walsall FC, Ken Wheldon, was again interested in Wolverhampton Wanderers with newspaper speculation that he was interested in rescuing the Wolves from potential financial disaster. The Save Walsall Action Group (SWAG) spokesman Barrie Blower came out and publically said, “Its now up to Ken Wheldon to come out and say what his ambitions are. This is Walsall FC not Wheldon FC and the supporters have every right to be informed.” However by the end of that month Wheldon had to ditch his plans after being told that the Molineux club was not up for sale.
In a shock move in December 1985, Ken Wheldon suddenly left Walsall to take over at…..Birmingham City and took long serving director Dick Holmden with him. Wheldon aquired controlling interest from Keith Coombes. The Walsall fans suspicions gathered pace about Wheldon’s REAL intentions on joining Blues due to the following series of events….
Players suddenly started to be transfered between the two clubs each way. In March 1986, the club announced that both clubs would share Birmingham’s training ground at Elmdon from the 1986-87 season and then it emerged that Walsall FC’s popular and long serving groundsman Roger Johnson was to be in charge of both the Fellows Park and St Andrews pitches. Following the departure of Wheldon to Blues, Jack Harris, who had been on Walsall’s board for many years, was to be the new chairman at Fellows Park.
A further bombshell emerged on April 12th in 1986 when a local newspaper reported that Wolves, West Brom and Walsall were considering a unique triple ground sharing plan. By the end of this month all sorts of rumours were rife with fans smelling a rat despite assurances from Wheldon and Harris just a month before. Their tune though had now changed- Wheldon pointed to the folly of spacious St Andrews only being used once a fortnight and ground sharing HAD to be considered whereas Harris adopted a “No comment” line.
So once again the SWAG was mobilised and Barrie Blower commented, “Make no mistake about it, we will fight all the way to keep the stadium in Walsall.” The local newspapers were absolutely brilliant and right behind the supporters and SWAG. They gave ample coverage of their plight. Petitions were organised and ordinary supporters were encouraged to participate and collect signatures against ground sharing with Blues and these were presented to the Football League. SWAG helped organise coaches of fans to go to both London and Newcastle for Football League Management Committee meetings and lobby delegates outside hotels where these important meetings to decide Walsall FC’s very future were taking place. The local press supplied posters to the words of ‘Don’t Let Walsall FC Die’ and the fans peacefully protested outside to make their point.
The meeting at Newcastle was the one to finally decide our fate. Would the Football League allow Wheldon to get his own way and Saddlers fans to not only lose their final chance of a new stadium altogether and indeed their very own identity or would common sense prevail? Well thankfully due to a phone call by Barrie Blower at the last minute they decided in favour of the fans and in a victory statement Barrie Blower claimed…”When the ‘patient’ was dying of neglect at Fellows Park, the only remedy the owners had was was to remove it to a ‘hospital’ in Birmingham where it could die happily. But they didn’t know about the ‘nurses’ who where here. We were never going to see Walsall FC leave this town and we never will.”
Barrie Blower had done his part in seeking a potential new buyer of the club in the shape of wealthy businessman and racehorse owner Terry Ramsden, who it later emerged had major plans for Walsall Football Club including plans for a new stadium . So for almost twenty years the club, mainly under Ken Wheldon, had dithered to find such a stadium that the fans and the town could be proud of. The last three seasons in particular had seen Wheldon publically planning a new stadium when in truth you could argue that asset-stripping and ground sharing was his real ambition. So now with the very real prospect of a new owner about to be signed we had at long last a realistic chance of securing that elusive new stadium under a new regime.
Terry Ramsden finally signed a deal making him the new owner of Walsall Football Club on August 1st, 1986. It would have been sooner had it not been for an oversight by Chairman Jack Harris regarding houses in Wallows Lane but at least the deal was now done.
Soon after the takeover, it was announced that a ‘getting to know you’ evening was being planned by Barrie Blower at the Walsall Town Hall. I was one of 1,000-strong who attended that evening and on the stage besides Mr Blower also in attendance was the new management team of Tommy Coakley and Gerry Sweeney and the players, the Mayor of Walsall Brian John and a new Director, Mr Bob Cox. Loud cheers went up when the Mayor announced that Walsall Council will back the new owners of the club with its ambitious plans for a multi-purpose stadium to replace Fellows Park. Mr Cox for his part said,” We want a complex second to none. Something we shall be very proud of.”
Terry Ramsden had a vision of building an ambitious scheme including a special care centre where elderly people could go and a place for teenagers to assemble….interesting! At the end of October that year Director Alan Harkett stated that the new stadium ” Could be built in time for the clubs centenary in 1988.” Meanwhile manager Tommy Coakley declared, “When the Directors get the land they will start building and we shall have the best stadium in the Midlands.” A bold statement indeed!
It all went rather quiet for the next six months but in March 1987, it was announced by the club that it was lining up a new stadium at Bescot Crescent as the club was negotiating to buy the site from the Severn Trent Water Authority. This time the stadium was to incorporate indoor bowls for the elderly and tennis courts were also mentioned. The site already had outline planning permission for housing, but that could be changed if ‘something else suitable’ came along.The following month they disclosed that they were close to negotiations for the above.
Nothing more of any worth was reported about progress till the end of that year when it was mentioned in the local press that a great deal of reclaimation work was needed to be carried out at the site so inquiries were being made to see what grants could be available to help out with the cost of this. In the December it was also reported that Ramsden may be willing to sell the club and that four wealthy local businessmen were interested in a consortium to buy him out.
On the 28th March,1988, Ramsden sold the club to a consortium. The major shareholder would be Maurice Miller, of a Leeds-based investment company. Mr Miller had business links with a Bloxwich firm J.W. Bonser. Miller wasn’t to have an active role on the board of Walsall F.C. however, but instead appointed two directors from that local firm, Ray Clift, a Financial Director and a certain Jeff Bonser. New Chairman was to be…..Barrie Blower. The sale cost £1 million and this figure wiped out the current debts, believed to be around £600,000 and Ramsden took away the £400,000 he payed for the 76% shareholding he aquired in the 1986 takeover. The idea was to end up with a new stadium and no debt for the club. The new Directors were to submit a planning application to build a new stadium at Bescot Crescent and at the same time sell Fellows Park for redevelopment but each would be dependant on the other. Barrie Blower said, “There will be no sale of Fellows Park unless planning permission is permitted for a new stadium.”
Temporary ground sharing had raised its head again as Walsall FC asked West Bromwich Albion about the possibility of sharing The Hawthorns if the new stadium couldn’t have been built in time. But the club did stress that they were hopeful that such a need wouldn’t arise.
So here we are, at the end of the 1987-88 season in which the team under Tommy Coakley had acheived promotion to the old Second Division via the play-offs still without any concrete news on the new stadium even though two years had passed since the end of the Wheldon/Harris regime.
The summer of 1988 saw the inevitable sale of its star player David Kelly to West Ham United for a fee of £600,000. Despite Walsall gaining promotion to the old Second Division via the play offs thanks to those memorable games with Bristol City, the club were not prepared to wreck their wage structure to keep the player, it was reported. Walsall FC’s plan to to sell Fellows Park for development and build a new stadium at Bescot Crescent was opposed by some shareholders who were not slow to voice their concerns.
One, who didn’t want to be named by the press said, “The present directors have 38,314 shares,representing more than 76% of the votes so they will get the scheme through. But I think now they have picked up £600,000 for one player (Kelly) they should stay at Fellows Park and improve the ground. It would not cost a fortune and they would keep their biggest asset. I shall vote against it at the EGM.”
It also came to light that two league club directors were the masterminds behind the multi-million pound plan to rebuild Walsall FC. They were Mr Peter Gilman, a director of Leeds United and Mr Michael Norris, Charlton Athletic’s Vice Chairman. Mr Gilman announced that he was negotiating with three potential buyers of Fellows Park. It also became clear that Walsall Council had the right to appoint four club directors once the plan, based on the Leeds United Golden Share scheme went through. Mr Norris was Managing Director of London and Cambridge Investments and Mr Gilman Managing Director of GMI Landmark, a Leeds-based firm. Under Football League regulations both are excluded from directorships of Walsall FC. Mr Gilman said, ” You can take it from me that football came first in this scheme. It was obvious that Fellows Park was out of date and there were massive car parking problems. The intention has been to vest ownership in local people and we are looking to set up a trust company so that the club can never be used as a pawn.”
Around a month later, the Walsall FC management and officials from the Saddlers Club spent a day at Glanford Park, the then new home of Scunthorpe United, to see for themselves the facilities available for them to glean the best ideas that stadium offered and impliment their own when Walsall’s time came. It was also stated at this time that the supporters would have a big say in what the stadium should or should not incorporate at Bescot and also have a final say in what Walsall’s new ground should be named!!
In October 1988 it was stated Walsall FC have possible buyers lined up for the old Fellows Park site and were hoping to start work at the Bescot site the following month and if everything went smoothly the team could be playing in their new stadium as early as August 1989. Agreement had been reached with Severn-Trent to lease the the Brockhurst land and the project could at last get underway if the Dept Of The Environment approves planning permission already granted by the council.
It also emerged at this time that Walsall supporters may get a brand new social club in the stadium complex. At that time the supporters club owned their existing Saddlers Club, a former Laundry but their home since 1965, but that site too was required by for development. Mr Blower commented, “We would like to have a supporters club attached to the ground,with bigger and better facilities for the fans. Walsall Football Club would also pay off the £40,000 the supporters club owe the brewery for that old Saddlers Club.
So as 1988 came to a close all seemed to be going along nicely. Would it be all plain sailing as the decade was drawing to a close or would there be any more hitches along the way?
December 1988 and January 1989 were bleak months for Walsall Football Club with Manager Tommy Coakley sacked after the shambles of the 1-5 home defeat to Oxford United on Boxing Day following ten successive defeats.Then caretaker Ray Train and new manager John Barnwell lost another five matches between them and the fans badly wanted a lift.It came on February 21st 1989.
After months of uncertainy the club announced that they had sold Fellows Park for around £6.5 million to the Gateway supermarket chain. That cleared the way for the club to enter negotiations with Walsall Council to buy land for a new for a new stadium in Bescot Crescent.
Chairman Barrie Blower said to the press, “We are all relieved that we have now sold the ground and can start negotiations to buy the land at Bescot. The deal involves clearing our overdraft of around £250,000 and paying off a £400,000 loan to previous owners Glen International. But we will make sure that 76% of ownership remains with local people.We want to introduce a cricket-style structure whereby we have members and they have the right to elect the board. We hope the council will come with us on this scheme. It is very important that Walsall stays with the people of the town.”
The club now planned to start work on their new stadium within weeks and he admitted that the price tag had been £5 million but could be in excess of £6 million. Blower also indicated that Denglen planned to built the stadium for around £4 million and the surplus from the sale of Fellows Park and the construction of the new stadium will be used to pay off existing debts. Meanwhile up to 150 local residents were expected to turn up at a meeting at nearby Joseph Leckie School to hear from the club and the council and a chance for them to voice their opinions and any concerns they may have.
Shortly after this it came to light that that a deal had been struck between Walsall FC and Denglen whereby any sale of players saw Denglen receive a third of transfer fees and Blower said, ” Denglen told us they might require funds to pay off the interest owed to Glen International (owned by previous chairman, Terry Ramsden.) so we agreed a third of our income from transfers should be set aside for Denglen to draw on.” So when David Kelly was sold to West Ham United for £600,000 the previous summer, £200,000 of it was automatically available to Denglen. Blower emphasised however, that although Denglen had first call on the cash, they had not actually used it and the football club had been allowed to buy properties in Wallows Lane with some of the money.
Walsall duly crashed out of the second division with a 0-5 defeat at Watford and Barrie Blower commented, “When we transfer to to the new stadium I believe it will give everyone a lift. It will be good for the players to be working in a modern ground with excellent facilities and I am sure supporters will enjoy the surroundings. We have survived the greatest turmoil any club could go through. I think the negative side of things has disappeared and we can look forward to a positive future.”
By the end of April 1989 bulldozers began clearing wasteland which would become the new multi-million home of Walsall FC and it was hoped that in just seven months the developers planned to transform the former Brockhurst sewage works into a ultra-modern stadium. The start of the month-long project to reclaim the land was expected to cost nearly £1 million following a series of hitches which had delayed work on the stadium. Mr Blower said that he was hopeful that any outstanding planning matters with Walsall Council would be resolved by the time the land had been cleared. He was also confident that the 12,000 capacity stadium would be completed by the end of November. They had planned to start laying the pitch in early June.
In that June of 1989, an up dated plan of the new stadium and its surrounds was featured in the local press showing the whole site. Its noticable that the location of the pitch had changed somewhat from the artist’s impression and there was a possible future training pitch shown . Final approval of these plans were now passed and Mr Blower disclosed that Walsall FC had already written to Buckingham Palace requesting a member of the Royal Family to officially open the stadium the following April. He also mentioned that ground preparation work had resumed following a hold up while agreement was reached on protection of trees on the site. The plan was to use Bescot Stadium for games from around December time in that year. It was also announced that month that supporters will be able to buy bits of Fellows Park when the club leave! Stand seats will cost £5, terrace slabs £3, a square yard of turf £5 but the centre spot and the two penalty spots would cost £50 and a turnstile would also cost £50
The club finally abandoned all hope of being able to move into Bescot during the 1989-90 season in the October as switching mid-season may have caused all sorts of problems. Stadium Manager Roger Johnson needed more time and weather to seed the pitch. It also came to light around this time that Saddlers were hoping that The Duke Of Kent will perform the opening ceremony. By November 1989 all the concrete terracing had been laid and most of the steelwork in place as the stadium began to take shape. It was announced that Bass Worthington had signed a three-year sponsorship deal for one of the new stands and another sponsorship with William Sharp at the end that would become the away fans stand. By December all 13 executive boxes had been sold some eight months before the ground was was scheduled to be opened. Manager John Barnwell took his players to the new stadium to have their first look inside. With the laying of the turf slightly delayed by recent heavy rain, the pitch area at this time was covered by millions of of pebbles -a discovery which led goalkeeper Fred Barber to roll up his trouser legs in the style of the archetypal day-tripper!
By March 1990 the stadium was coming along quite nicely but the same couldn’t be said on the playing side! John Barnwell was sacked this month following a dreadful run of 13 league games without a win and it started to sink in that there was a distinct possiblity that after reaching the dizzy heights of the Second Division in 1988 that Walsall FC would kick off life in its new surroundings in soccer’s basement. The following month the red seats started to be fitted and special quick-growing Dutch grass seedlings were put in place. Paul Taylor was put in charge of team affairs but couldn’t prevent the dreaded drop and following a 1-3 defeat at Cardiff it was confirmed. In May 1990 Kenny Hibbitt was appointed the new Manager with Taylor named as General Manager. It then came to light that Sir Stanley Matthews would do the honours to open the stadium and that the home end stand would be named after one of the club’s legendary players, Gilbert Alsop.
Bescot Stadium officials had a race against time as it came towards its opening and just a couple of weeks before the big day Walsall were sweating over a safety certificate. Senior police and council officials toured the stadium and found one snag which could have prevented the actual certificate being handed over! Work on the tv gantry above the main stand, (The HL Fellows Stand) had not been completed so Walsall FC agreed to postpone that project until there was a suitable gap in the league season.
The opening took place on Saturday 18th August 1990 and there were representatives from The Football Association, Football League, The Mayor and Mayoress of Walsall and special guest Sir Stanley Matthews cut the ribbon to officially kick off a new dawn for Walsall Football Club. There was a pipe band, cheer leaders and a free-fall paracute team landing on the pitch. 9,551 turned up to see Walsall play Aston Villa on a hot afternoon and the Villa won 4-0 as their class came through but the Saddlers fans were not to bothered about the scoreline it was all about the opening. The first Football League game played at Bescot was on the following Saturday, 25th August against Torquay United which ended in a 2-2 draw.
Some facts and figures about Bescot Stadium at that time….Plans to install undersoil heating were abandoned and the architect’s original scheme to have cantilevered beams all round was dropped in favour of erecting 28 stanchions to support the roofing. This resulted in a saving of £150,000 in a £4.5 million budget. The capacity was set at 11,104 which comprised 3,215 standing at each end, 2,378 seats in the HL Fellows Stand and 2,296 in the Family Stand.There were, when the stadium opened,1,200 car park places.
So we finally come to the end of this story. As the club celebrates 20 years of being at Bescot it always needs to be remembered it took around 20 years for the club to get there. One name that has been mentioned a lot in all this is Mr Barrie Blower. As you will have seen in earlier parts of this feature, without him it simply would not have happened.