Walsall – League One's surprise package
Good start to the season for the Saddlers
6 October ~ English football’s patented brand of boom and bust has had an interesting effect on League One in recent years. If the Premier League is Hollywood then League One is the Betty Ford Clinic – a rest home for burnt-out former stars, seeking respite from their troubles before attempting one last comeback. Some require a longer stay than others but they’re all rehabilitated eventually.
Not since Scunthorpe won League One in 2006-07 has a genuinely unexpected team challenged the inevitable ascent of the Premier League flotsam. But early indications suggest this season might be different. Portsmouth and Coventry have more demons than most of the refugees that have washed up in recent years, while Sheffield United’s financial problems mean they may be here for a touch longer than they thought.
Tranmere currently head the table after a start boasting 24 points from a possible 30, 25 goals scored and three players currently sharing the lead in the top-scorers chart. There’s something comforting about Ronnie Moore leading a swashbuckling side to the top of the third division. It feels like a welcome nod to how things used to be.
There have been other surprise packages too, none more so than Walsall. Almost inevitably pegged as favourites for relegation, I’d love to say that our excellent start vindicates the upbeat closed season mood among Saddlers fans but that’s simply not true. In fact, given our summer recruitment policy, expectation going into the season was almost non-existent.
Manager Dean Smith has steered the club to safety in each of the last two seasons but has a mixed record in the transfer market. The reaction seems to have been to hand this responsibility to Smith’s assistant, Richard O’Kelly. After being sacked from his post alongside Sean O’Driscoll at Doncaster last season, O’Kelly helped out at Walsall for a spell before leaving for an ill-fated three-month attempt to save Hereford United from relegation. In the summer, O’Kelly returned to the Banks’s Stadium and Walsall signed no fewer than five players who had played for him at Edgar Street.
Recruiting a fair proportion of a team that had just been relegated to the Conference caused the predictable message board meltdowns – hardly helped by an opening day defeat at home to Doncaster. But then something remarkable happened. Not only did Walsall start to win, they won playing a brand of slick possession football very much in the mould of O’Driscoll and O’Kelly’s handsome Rovers sides. Current form teams Notts County, MK Dons and Preston have all been comfortably turned over and the emergence of homegrown striker George Bowerman (six goals already this term) is another plus. With a thin squad and a hard season ahead most fans are realistic about the long-term prospects of this side.
One person who won’t be able to enjoy watching Walsall’s unexpected success is chairman Jeff Bonser who still refuses to attend matches following the “personal grief” he received during protests two seasons ago. But at least there will be one unexpected guest in attendance for the visit of Carlisle United this weekend: cautious optimism. Tom Lines
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