This week Walsall have two home pre-season friendly games against two of the usual suspects in Wolverhampton Wanderers and Aston Villa. Last season Wolves put four past Walsall without reply. The Villa game was much closer with our visitors obtaining a 2-1 win.
Supporters are getting a little fed up of the same band of opponents in these games but we have had some interesting fixtures against a variety of teams down the years.These games in July and August only really began to appear in the 1960′s.
We had Manchester City turn up at Fellows Park twice in the mid 60′s with two bumper gates. 9,499 and 7,396. The 2-1 win in 1966 was the first such fixture that I attended and I remember being surprised by the team performance that day and their manager at the time Joe Mercer was sporting enough to write afterwards:
‘Walsall are fit and strong and runs. The team is well organised in defence, brave and direct up front with a fair amount of craft in midfield,playing in a sensible,modern way.’
What a compliment by Mercer who’s side had just won the second division.
In 1967 we faced Morton and over 7,000 saw Alec Jackson on target against Fulham. In 1969 we entertained Sheffield United who had crowd-pleaser Tony Currie in their line up and he found his name on the scoresheet and Bolton Wanderers paid us a visit too. There were several games against the West Midland top teams and we also started to play Leicester City every now and again too.
The 1970′s saw a whole host of new ‘friendly’ opponents with the likes of Dundee,Lincoln,Oxford, Mansfield,Chester, Nottingham Forest, Newport County and even old rivals Shrewsbury Town turned up one year.
1983 saw a welcome change with Everton providing the opposition who duly thumped us 3-0 but surprisingly a sparse crowd of just 1,784 bothered to turn up that day. In 1987 FA Cup winners Coventry arrived at Fellows Park but the game was a somewhat disappointing 0-0 affair with the gate given as 4,450. A few days later David Kelly scored a hat trick as we beat Colchester 3-0 and the following season we had another Scottish team- Hibernian- who beat us 3-1 however a few days later we shared 6 goals with Millwall in what was a most entertaining game in which Willie Naughton converted two penalties.
The first friendly at Bescot was a special day which was the official opening of the new stadium as Aston Villa sent a strong team and I remember being almost squashed behind the goal there were that many crammed in standing up on a boiling hot day.Sir Stanley Matthews was special guest for the day and he cut the tape to open a new era in the history of Walsall Football Club. 9,551 was given as the official attendance but to me and everyone else present there seemed more.
Early Bescot years saw the visits of Middlesborough and Oldham Athletic and 1998 saw Sheffield Wednesday come to town. By now we were well into the local sides being regular visitors but I recall quite an explosive game with Birmingham City in 1997. We were treated to a thunderstorm and on the pitch Louie Donowa-who was making his Walsall debut- scored after just 33 seconds! However his involvement in that game was curtailed in the first half when he was substituted on the demand of referee Terry Holbrook following a late,crude tackle on Steve Robinson.It was in the ‘violent conduct’ bracket but he decided not to red-card the winger as it was a so-called ‘friendly’ fixture. Instead he ordered the bad boy to be substituted. The game ended 3-3 and was quite an afternoon.
In 2001 a somewhat unusual fixture took part as we entertained the Indian National Team one August evening and as this decade unfolded we soon were locked into the same battles with Albion, Villa, Blues and Wolves. We did have a couple of games against a ‘Manchester United XI’ which turned out to be non-events. One evening game saw the start delayed as our famous visitors were held up in a M6 traffic jam but we did see an appearance from Roy Keane in one match here. Other highlights included a goal by Paul Merson against Aston Villa where his admirers from his Villa days joined in the applause as he scored a trademark goal which had the unusual sight of all four stands applauding the player for his efforts. I can fully understand the reasons for having these local teams but I wish we could go back to the days where we could have a bit of a selection instead of the teams from off our doorstep.
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