Hi. Welcome to this new and hopefully good and regular blog. I’m Nathan, and I occasionally post on the board as Nathyb. I don’t know why, really. I do have a sort of nickname but I didn’t use that when I signed up. I’m not sure why I didn’t. Anyway.
I’m 21, just graduated from university and have moved back home for a year. I invested in a season ticket at Walsall for the first time in July. I would have had one earlier but a weekend job at Morrisons from when I was 16, until I left to go to university at 18, then being in London on-and-off for three years, made it difficult. Now, though, there is no such barrier, with any attempt to do a Master’s degree scuppered for a(t least a) year.
The first football match I went to was the first match of the 1999/2000 season (I think) against Swindon Town. Unfortunately, not at all aware of football etiquette, and a 9-year-old, I applauded Jimmy Glass, Swindon’s then-backup goalkeeper, onto the pitch as he came out to warm up before the game. I remembered Glass for scoring the goal he scored for Carlisle at the end of the previous season and felt he needed some sort of credit. I remember Walsall drew that match 0-0; the only thing I can really remember other than my out-of-place applause for Glass was that the other Swindon goalkeeper, Frank Talia, spilled a regulation save from a Bjarni Larusson shot.
My parents are not interested in football whatsoever. I suppose, had I not gone to Walsall, I might have gone to Villa with my friends when I was a bit older; it would certainly be easier on the trains from Lichfield, where I live. But once I’d been to the Swindon match and a few others later that season, I thought that I might as well support Walsall. I’d seen more matches of theirs than any other team, so how was I to follow another now?, I must have thought. I was born at the Manor, and lived in Walsall until I was 11, so that’s a slightly romantic reason for why I became a Saddler; but the first match theory is actually truer, unfortunately.
Then, as I got older, I went to the odd game with Christmas and birthday money that I hadn’t spent on books or CDs, usually with my sister, who’s two-and-a-half years younger than me. She wasn’t really bothered about Walsall; she just wanted to see goals. In the years of Merson and then few months of Broadhurst, we saw quite a few, sat in (what I think was then) the Purple Loans Lower Tier. Unfortunately, not many were scored by Walsall. She doesn’t go at all any more. I think the success of Richard Money’s reign and (the then) strong(er) Walsall defences put her off.
When I went to university, I could get to even fewer games. I went to a lot of away games – I got mugged in Southend after a 2-0 defeat, when I thought a quick stroll would be ok – or to see other London teams, since Leyton Orient, QPR or AFC Wimbledon weren’t far away via trips on the train or Tube. My first couple of times at Brisbane Road co-incided with Dean Smith being the assistant manager at Orient, under Martin Ling. Orient weren’t great and Ling and Smith were to be sacked pretty soon after. Ryan Jarvis and Adam Chambers, funnily enough how it’s turning out, weren’t particularly special either. When Chris Hutchings signed Sam Parkin for us in 2009, after he had endured a long loan at Orient during which he hadn’t scored a goal, I felt a tad more pessimistic than when I saw Smith had signed Jarvis and Chambers. But only a tad.
The only Walsall game I went to at Brisbane Road during those days as a student, Walsall won 1-0. Mark Bradley scored the winner, a good one I remember; and I remember there was a really very drunk Walsall fan in the row in front of me. Last season versus Orient, with essays due, little, if any, money to spend and Walsall on an appalling run and playing on what I think was a freezing Tuesday night, I’m ashamed to say that I couldn’t be bothered to see them. They drew 0-0. The Hutchings-O’Connor dream team hung on for a few more weeks.
Last season I think I went to the most consecutive Walsall games I’ve even been to – except I couldn’t go to the Southampton match at the end because I couldn’t financially get to Walsall to get a ticket, travel down to London again, then spend money on a train to Southampton and then one back again. That’s what London renting prices are, unfortunately. (But don’t think I’m not a committed fan: Christ, the internet takes a good beating if I can’t get to the game.) Other than that Southampton match, I rather neglected revision for my finals and went to all the games I could. The Charlton win was the best I’d seen Walsall play for a long while, even if Charlton were poor. Chris Powell’s win percentage record, in that matchday programme, I (think I) remember, was worse than Dean Smith’s. Now, not even five months later, Walsall are 16th in League One, winless in four; Charlton are top.
I probably got caught up in the Smith hype. I was cautiously optimistic. I remember agreeing with someone on BBC WM who said that with another striker and central midfielder Walsall could challenge the top 6, whatever that is at the end of the season. Now, only a few weeks later, that looks crazily optimistic.
But I never got the Ginger Mourinho thing. I don’t think, and I’m sorry to be pessimistic, he’ll ever win the Champions League; I don’t think his tactics to date are worthy of such praise; and, anyway, he’s going white in bits: he might have been fully ginger a few years ago, but not now.
Don’t get me wrong. I like Smith. But Walsall survived last season for several reasons, not just him. That he instilled confidence in the squad, with the help of Jon Whitney and Chris Nicholl, when it was obvious that it was shot under the previous dream team was key. The loan players he brought in, like Jordan Cook, Marc Laird or Marco Gbarssin, were critical, too; but, also, don’t forget we were very lucky. If Plymouth had not entered administration and had 10 points deducted from their eventual points total, Walsall would now be in League Two.* I don’t think we’d would be managerless and 92nd from 92 league clubs, but it would probably have been a struggle – it wouldn’t have been a Richard Money led-style waltz back to League One.
It hasn’t been a waltz so far. We’ve beaten dear old Orient, who were poor and at present have two points from a possible twenty-seven, Bournemouth and League Two Shrewsbury, who had Matt Richards in their midfield, who, inexplicably, I think Walsall are lacking.
I’ve now put two rather lengthy messages on Walsall Web Fans bemoaning the lack of good midfield players and a potent strikeforce. Without Macken, we’re blunt; in fairness to him, with him, we’re not great either. But, goodness me, our present midfield is far weaker than last season’s. Is Chambers an adequate replacement for Richards? Bumbling and slow Richards may be, but Chambers is not even as effective as him. And it’s worth remembering Chambers has already missed more games this season that Richards did throughout the whole of last season. Pedantic probably, but also true.
From the home games I’ve seen this season, I think 16th is a fair place for Walsall to be in League One, and, realistically, it’s probably near enough where Walsall can optimistically but realistically hope to finish. After the first-half horrorshow of last season, that would be creditable. In a way, it’s unfortunate that Smith set his expectations so high in July, saying that we might challenge for the play-offs, since seems to have been merely bluster. A bloke I talked to the other day said that Walsall were tried to get gates up (in ways they haven’t before? Have they never been optimistic?) and optimistic overtones were good to attract the punters in. It doesn’t seem to have made much of a difference, really.
When I went to the Meet the Manager event which Smith and Whitney talked at in late July/early August, Smith said that there’s 1,000 professional players out of contract in the UK. All he has to do, as he did with Emmanuel Ledesma, or through the loan system, Mat Gill, is just find an attacking midfielder to plug that midfield, add a little extra quality. ‘Just’. I’m sure it’s bloody difficult.
But it’s difficult to blame Smith and Smith alone for this gloom I’m feeling towards Walsall at the moment. Sure, if the players perform poorly on the matchday then that’s his fault and job to prevent it happening again (although I wish he didn’t say that he ‘shuffles the pack’, because it makes it sound like there’s a randomness to his team selection. Saying that, there might be if Lee Beevers is in front of Darryl Westlake next Saturday) but the financial constraints on him are also important to consider.
In a book I read recently, because I can now read books I want to and not politics journals which I had to for my degree, called ‘Why England Lose’ by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, football statistics are used and dissected and explanations sought for why things happen the way they do in football. Not all of their conclusions are totally convincing, but a lot of them are. And one credible conclusion that they make is: the more you pay your players, the higher you finish in your league and the more success you can expect to achieve. Maybe obvious, but Ray Graydon’s achievements, looking back at that conclusion, look even better.
Kuper and Szymanski took the 58 clubs who had played in the Premier League and (what is now) the Championship (at least, obviously, when they were writing) and measured their performance against what the teams paid out to players. From those 58, Walsall were ranked 55th in their performance-wage payment ratio. Walsall paid less, they did less well in comparison to other clubs. (Top of the wage structure was Manchester United, Arsenal, despite what Arsene Wenger likes to say about keeping a cap on wages and insulting large transfers, and Chelsea.)
And with gates hovering around 3,200-3,500, we can’t really expect any more success, whatever that might be. When I started going to Walsall, crowds of 5-6-7,000 were not atypical. They certainly are now. Something’s awry somewhere. Is it because Walsall are crap and no one wants to see them? Maybe, but didn’t seem to be a problem 10 to 15 years ago.
Anyway, that’s part one: a quick rush, as unaware (in terms of structure, at least) as a Chris Hutchings substitution, through a few Walsall things. Hopefully it’s enough to be going on now. I’ll try and make some inroads into some things Walsall and, fingers crossed, will be back here before long.
Ta for reading.
*Unfortunately (or fortunately whichever way you look at it), a friend from the university newspaper, Kerry, is a Plymouth fan. She saw them lose at Bescot last year, 2-1. After a couple of pints in the Tuns in March (it doesn’t take me much to say silly things sober, and I get drunk quickly: I’m only 5’8” and 10-ish stone), I said that, in the event that both our teams were both relegated or stayed in League One (at the time it was still possible) I would go to see Plymouth vs Walsall at Home Park with her. Making this promise, with no money (I still haven’t got any) and when I might have had a job or another degree to complete (neither materialised), was reckless. Still, if we get them in the FA Cup away, I hope she might still come down with me from her continuing studies in London, and see a Walsall win.