8 April ~ When Walsall face Plymouth tomorrow it will be a meeting between two teams that have attracted more than their fair share of headlines in recent months. Argyle's problems have been well documented but the Saddlers have also been in the news, with features in the Guardian the Times and that well-known football magazine Pensions Management. The title of that last publication is a clue to the fact that this sudden interest in the West Midlands' least fashionable league club is not entirely connected to performances on the pitch. Instead, attention has focused on chairman Jeff Bonser's unexpected decision to put the Banks's Stadium up for sale.
Over the last few years the question of who owns the ground has become somewhat confused, not least because of a 2009 article in which Bonser stated that "there is no relationship whatsoever between the pension I will be entitled to...and the rent that Walsall Football Club pays”. It took the Guardian’s David Conn to finally get to the bottom of things, with a rare interview where Bonser confirmed what fans had long suspected – that his pension fund did own the ground after all.
Fans are understandably worried about the stadium being sold to someone with no emotional attachment to the club, especially since Walsall only broke even last season thanks to a loan of £500,000 from the chairman. At least now that the ownership question has been clarified fans can focus on lobbying the right people – the Supporters’ Trust has already put forward a series of proposals that would see the club reunited with its ground.
On the pitch, things have improved immeasurably since the board finally sacked the hapless Chris Hutchings in January and replaced him with youth team coach Dean Smith. After inheriting a side bottom of the table and eight points from safety, Smith has done incredibly well to give the Saddlers a fighting chance of avoiding the drop. Instead it’s Walsall’s hosts who now find themselves at the foot of the division, largely thanks to the ten points deducted when the Pilgrims appointed an administrator in February. The fact that this is the fourth season in a row in which the League One table has been distorted by points deductions related to financial problems shows just how farcical the governance of football has become.
Jeff Bonser would doubtless contrast the relative stability at Walsall over the last two decades with the awful uncertainty surrounding Plymouth. And on this point, at least, it’s hard to argue. What worries many supporters, however, is that if he fails to take this second opportunity to return the freehold to the football club he may well be creating a situation where Walsall’s future could be every bit as precarious as Plymouth’s present. Tom Lines