22 March ~ For Walsall fans it has been a long wait for an opportunity to enjoy a day out at Wembley. Today they finally get their chance when they take on Bristol City in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final. Despite their lack of Wembley experience, Walsall did actually beat today’s opponents in another final in 1988.
Following the culmination of the Third Division Walsall, Bristol City and Notts County were joined in the play-offs by Sheffield United of Division Two. Walsall saw off Notts County with Bristol City joining them in the final having edged Sheffield United over two legs.
The play-off format was still in its infancy having been introduced the season before as part of the Football League’s restructuring. The winners would be decided over the course of a home and away two-legged tie with a replay if the teams remained level. The final would eventually be played at Wembley from 1990 onwards but that was two years too late for the Saddlers.
In the first leg, Walsall rose to the challenge of playing in front of over 25,000 at Ashton Gate, securing a 3-1 advantage, but slipped up at Fellows Park in the second leg losing 2-0 to level the tie on aggregate. With the teams needing a replay it was decided in a unique move that there would be a penalty shootout to determine the hosts. Walsall won the shootout 4-2 and two days later the teams returned to Fellows Park.
The contest was effectively over within 20 minutes as the Saddlers raced into a three-goal lead with an opportunistic brace from David Kelly followed by a towering Phil Hawker header. Club legend Kelly, in what would be his final appearance for the club, went on to complete his hat-trick in the second half to seal Walsall’s place in the Second Division. Sandy Beeson