Saddlers Sore

Dave Woodhall on a trip to the Bescot.

Like a lot of local football supporters I used to spend many a Tuesday evening watching Walsall.

Back when it was a couple of pounds to stand on the Fellows Park  terrace this was where Villa, Wolves and Albion fans (for some reason I never met anyone there who followed Blues) got their midweek football fix. In those days there was no such thing as live coverage; if you wanted to watch a match you went to see whoever as playing. Walsall tended to average around four thousand, and very often got bigger gates midweek than they did on Saturday afternoons. They also had a tendency to avoid promotion from division three, despite regularly overturning bigger teams in the cups. It was reckoned that they didn’t want promotion, that they were happy with life at that level.

Their move to Bescot in 1990 was the start of a new era for the Saddlers but despite yo-yoing between the old second and third tiers gates didn’t rise by as much as they did elsewhere during football’s TV-inspired boom. You could now see more than enough football without having to leave home and making Bescot all-seater also drove prices up. Watching a team you didn’t really support started to become an expensive midweek event rather than something you could pay for out of your spare change.

But to their credit, Walsall soldier on and like many clubs have realised that the only way to survive is by encouraging families and youngsters to turn up on matchday. Which is how I came to be at Bescot on Saturday, when the Saddlers, pushing for a place in the play-offs under the management of their former player, Great Barr-born Dean Smith, took on mid-table Carlisle United.

For someone whose football watching is restricted to the Premier or the lower echelons of non-league, the game came as a pleasant surprise. The sun was shining, Walsall’s resident ‘eccentric’ supporter Kevin was running around topless encouraging the crowd and after controlling the game for twenty minutes the home side went one up with a goal that wouldn’t have been out of place at a higher standard. Unfortunately, the Saddlers defence was wide open for a quick equaliser and the score was level at half-time.

The sun went in during the second half in more ways than one. Carlisle’s physical approach proved more effective than Walsall’s attempts to pass the ball and although the game seemed to be fizzling out into a draw it came as no great surprise when the visitors got an injury-time winner after a horrendous defensive mix-up. Walsall had blown their chance to move into the top four but they’d definitely shown enough promise to indicate that this season will be an improvement on their recent battles with relegation.

The crowd was just under four thousand with a couple of hundred having trekked down the M6 from Cumbria, although two of the visitors had a slightly shorter journey. They were, they explained on the train back to New Street, the Maypole branch of the Carlisle supporters club. Bloody gloryhunters – they should support one of their local teams.

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