Saddlers one of four League clubs not to play at national stadium
26 January ~ The original Wembley Stadium was completed on April 24, 1923, just four days before it hosted the famous "White Horse” Cup final. As a result, supporters of Bolton and West Ham didn’t have long to wait before each team made their debut at the brand new stadium. Some of us haven’t been quite so lucky. Tomorrow night, Walsall will attempt to reach Wembley for the first time since it opened 91 years ago. Being 2-0 up from the away leg of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy northern area final against Preston, the Saddlers will start as favourites to progress but fans are taking nothing for granted. And with good reason.
Thanks to the play-offs and the Football League Trophy, clubs in Leagues One and Two have a couple of decent chances each season to book a day out at the national stadium. Hang around the lower-leagues long enough and eventually someone will call your number. Except Walsall have remained permanent fixtures in Wembley’s waiting room, exchanging forced smiles with Hartlepool, Crawley and Accrington: the other three teams from the 92 without a Wembley appearance to their name. A trivia question that nobody wants to be the answer to.
Not that we haven’t come close. The 1984 League Cup semi-final saw us draw 2-2 at Anfield before Liverpool won 2-0 in the return leg at Fellows Park. In the late 1990s we reached the area final of the Auto Windscreens Shield in consecutive seasons, falling at the final hurdle on both occasions. But it’s the circumstances surrounding our two play-off final appearances that have led some fans to mutter darkly about a "Wembley curse". In 1988 Walsall beat Bristol City in a replay after the two-legged final ended all square (finals at Wembley were introduced two years later). Then, in 2001, we bagged another third-tier play-off win against Reading. With Wembley closed for redevelopment the game took place at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium. In one last two-fingered salute from the twin towers the old Wembley wasn’t actually demolished until 2003.
And so to this season. After the excellent performance at Deepdale, fans are starting to believe that this might actually be our year. The run to the area final has even included a win on penalties against Tranmere – our first successful shootout in over a decade. "Sold out” signs went up at the Bescot Stadium ten days ago, guaranteeing a capacity home crowd for the first time since the final day of the 2004 season when Walsall were relegated from the second tier by a single goal.
If this is to be our first Wembley appearance then the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy is actually the perfect competition in which to do it. If the game was a play-off final then defeat would undoubtedly taint the experience of our big debut. But has anyone ever been genuinely distraught at losing the Football League Trophy? Instead of worrying about the game we can concentrate on enjoying the highlights of our day out in London: playing "Weekend Engineering Works Bingo” on the Tube and paying £8 for a pie.
That’s why this is one of those very rare occasions where, for one set of fans at least, the semi-final is far more important than the final itself. And that’s because Wembley still matters. Not the New Wembley of corporate debentures and crass FA Cup semis but the one that inevitably evokes Stanley Matthews, Booby Moore, Bob Stokoe and Paul Gascoigne. The Wembley that has existed in the minds of football fans ever since over 200,000 turned up to see that very first match in 1923. We’ve had 91 years to imagine what watching Walsall at Wembley might be like. And now, thrillingly – unbearably - once again we’re 90 minutes away from finding out. Tom Lines