A snapshot from one of the last games played at the Saddlers’ former home has a special resonance for one player pictured
August 31 ~ Walsall is one of Britain’s largest towns. By population, the borough is bigger than Sunderland, Wolverhampton and Hull. Yet the curious thing about being a Walsall fan in the town is that it’s quite unusual to meet other Walsall fans.
In 1984, I started secondary school at Barr Beacon Comprehensive on the very south-eastern edge of the town, right on the border with Birmingham. Villa country. To be fair, in the mid-1980s most of the West Midlands was Villa country. The claret and blue duvet and curtain set ruled the bedrooms of the region’s youth with an iron grip. If you think Aston Villa fans go on about the European Cup now, imagine what it was like two years after they actually won it.
This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. As the only kid from my junior school to go to “Beacon”, I knew nobody when I arrived. The six Walsall fans from the 300 pupils in my year naturally gravitated together and I became part of a tight-knit group who stood together on the Popular Side at crumbling Fellows Park. My senior school years perfectly encapsulated the ups and (mostly) downs of following the Saddlers. In 1984 we beat Arsenal at Highbury on the way to a narrow League Cup semi-final defeat against Liverpool that included a 2-2 draw at Anfield in the first leg. By 1990 we were about to suffer our second successive relegation after fighting off attempts to move the club to both Molineux and St Andrew’s, having come perilously close to folding completely.
The start of a new decade was also the end of the road for Fellows Park. A new ground was nearing completion down the road at Bescot and it would be the last season in the ramshackle ground we’d called home since 1896. In May 1990 I was in the middle of taking my GCSEs, with just the long, World Cup summer stretching ahead of me. Then something remarkable happened. I was called up to the school football team. In five years I hadn’t got within a mile of our all-conquering side. But there was my name on the team sheet pinned up in the sports hall. Somehow, I’d been selected for the semi-final of the Walsall Schools Cup. The final would be played at Fellows Park. With so much at stake, the semi-final should have been nerve-rackingly tense. We won 9-0.
We were allocated the home dressing room for the final against Darlaston. In a squad of 13, I was the only Saddler. I vividly remember how Walsall players had placed Panini stickers of their favourite Italia 90 stars next to their pegs. I recall that they rang the bell for us to go out onto the pitch. Of the game itself I recall little. I know that my mum and dad were there, standing in the paddock that ran in front of the main stand. I think I played OK. We won 4-0. As I left the pitch I bent down and pinched a few strands of grass out of the pitch. When I got back to the dressing room, I carefully put them in my coat pocket and for a while they remained the only memento I had.
My mum died six years later. I was 22 and moved back in with my dad. Not long afterwards I bumped into Nathan, the star centre-forward from the school team, who had just moved into a flat nearby. One evening he showed me this photo. It was the first time I’d ever seen a record of that day. There I am, fourth from the right on the back row, top button still done up, smiling shyly like I can’t quite believe what’s just happened. Nathan kindly let me take a copy.
When you lose a parent at a relatively young age you naturally think about the things they’ll never see. Triumphs they could have celebrated, traumas they could have helped you through. But you also think about the times you did share. Did you do enough to make them proud? They started dismantling Fellows Park a few weeks after that under-16 cup final. There’s a theory that ours was the last competitive game ever to be played at the old ground. I’ve no idea if that’s true but I do know that when the diggers moved in, my stud marks were still part of that pitch. And behind the person who took this picture, my mum’s still there too somewhere. Watching on, with a big smile. Tom Lines