4 December ~ Just over a decade ago, Walsall beat Oldham in front of a crowd of over 9,000 to secure automatic promotion to the Championship. But the Banks's Stadium will be a very different place for today's game between the two sides, with barely 3,000 Saddlers fans expected to turn up to watch a team that has amassed fewer points than any other in the Football League this season.
Manager Chris Hutchings has borne the brunt of fans' frustrations but chairman Jeff Bonser has also come in for criticism. After selling striker Troy Deeney to Watford for £500,000 on the eve of the new season, there was little time to invest the money in permanent signings. The threadbare squad was instead patched up with a mixture of free agents and short-term loans.
Although Hutchings did well to guide the Saddlers to tenth in League One last season he has looked increasingly out of his depth during this campaign and after being thrashed 4-1 at home by a Tranmere side that were bottom of the table at the time, most fans assumed that Hutchings would be on his way. That was eight games ago and subsequent performances have, if anything, got worse. Supporters are baffled by the club's persistence with Hutchings and are downright angry that – until a lukewarm vote of confidence for the manager earlier this week – the club had remained resolutely silent on our worst start to a season for 57 years.
One clue to Hutchings' continued employment might be found in another statement released this week. The announcement of an operating profit of £5,000 was spun as good news by the club but, just as the league table doesn't lie about our performances on the pitch, a quick scan of the accounts reveals the true state of Walsall's finances. This nominal profit was only possible after Bonser loaned the club a staggering £546,652 in the last financial year.
This in turn has to be seen in the light of his additional roles as owner and landlord – Bonser's pension fund receives almost £400,000 a year in rental payments from the club for the privilege of playing at the Banks's Stadium. With average attendances down from 5,500 to 3,500 in just three years it has become painfully obvious that the club is now in the appalling position of being unable to afford to play in its own ground.
In standing by a manager who has completely lost the support of the club's fans, the board now stand accused of simply sleepwalking into League Two. It may be that it is considered too expensive to sack Hutchings, yet it is difficult to see how the club will attract lapsed fans back given the team's current form. The absence of one supporter is particularly significant. During a recent meeting with the Supporters' Trust, Jeff Bonser admitted that he had attended only one game this season as he simply "doesn't enjoy it anymore". Walsall fans know how he feels. Tom Lines