Saddlers have added attacking flair and been praised by José Mourinho
2 October ~ Dean Smith celebrated his 250th game in charge of Walsall on Tuesday night with a 1-0 win at Scunthorpe that cemented the Saddlers’ position alongside Burton and Gillingham as surprise League One pacesetters. At a time when the average managerial tenure across all four divisions has dropped to less than 15 months, Smith is now English football’s fourth-longest serving manager, with his success making him something of a poster boy for the virtues of stability and patience.
Mind you, Walsall fans have been more patient than most. On the surface, a trio of mid-table finishes in the last three seasons seems like a decent achievement for a club with one of the smaller budgets in the league. Yet criticism of Smith has focused on a number of consistent weaknesses that have characterised his time in charge – poor home form and a tendency to draw too many games, as well as accusations of tactical inflexibility and an over reliance on possession football that lacked a cutting edge.
This season has started very differently. Smith’s teams have always been defensively solid but now there is a new attacking verve and willingness to experiment with formations and personnel. Remarkably for a club who have lost only three games in all competitions, Smith is yet to name the same team in consecutive matches. Much of the football has been a joy to watch, with 18-year old wing-back Rico Henry’s winning goal against Scunthorpe typifying the slick, fluid style that Walsall employ.
Even José Mourinho is a fan, with the Chelsea manager praising the quality of Walsall’s play following their recent League Cup match: "I have years of cups in this country and I haven't found a team in League One playing the quality of football that Walsall tried to play.” On Saturday that football will face perhaps its sternest test in the league so far. Wigan are the latest in a long line of former Premier League teams who have turned up in League One clutching parachute payments and predicting a swift return to bigger and better things.
Whether 24-year-old Latics chairman David Sharpe comes to regret his pre-season pledge to ”‘smash" the division with a "100 point total” remains to be seen but after a steady yet unspectacular start manager Gary Caldwell is already bemoaning the fact that teams raise their game for a "cup final" against Wigan – an excuse that also has a familiar ring to veteran League One watchers. It suggests that Sharpe may have to wait a little longer for his inevitable promotion. But perhaps that’s not a bad thing. After all, patience is a virtue. Tom Lines