The Small club you can see from the M6 are becoming a team you don’t want to play against when you need a win… Walsall have gone from relegation scrappers to genuine play-off contenders in the space of 12 months and are now a team feared in League 1.
Walsall Football club have been quietly going about their business this season and sit in 7th place in League one after 14 games. For a club with one of the lowest budgets in the league and one of the smallest and youngest squads, that is not bad going. Manager Dean Smith, who is labelled as “Ginger Mourinho” by the fans, yes they beat the Burnley fans to it, has slowly transformed their fortunes since he took over in January 2011.
The Dean Smith Affect
Walsall were bottom of League one on January 4th 2011 when Dean Smith took over and things look bleak, however they made the great escape and survived. Key players Julian Gray, Matt Richards and loan superstar Emmanuel Ledesma all left the club so it made it difficult for Smith to build on the survival; nevertheless they managed to survive again. The only signings made were loans and that year saw the breakthrough of Jamie Paterson and Will Grigg. After more departures Smith had to build once again and again he signed a lot of young, local players, whether they were from the academy or local sides most notably Wolves, West Bromwich Albion and Hereford. Ashley Hemmings, James Baxendale, Nicky Featherstone, Ben Purkiss and Sam Mantom were added and have all been key players who have grown under Smith. Also he took a gamble on ex-Manchester United forward Fabian Brandy who was sleeping on a sofa at a friend’s apartment after failure in Greece.
This looked to be a massive gamble, but boy did it pay off. They had a bright start to the season but then fell into a 16 game winless run. Late goals, refereeing decisions, injuries to key players or simply a bad day at the office caused this run to drag for this young side however once they got that illusive win which came on December 22nd against Colchester they never looked back. Scalps included MK Dons, Bournemouth and a resounding 4-0 win over Coventry City turned Walsall into play off contenders! In January they began an unbeaten run which spread all the way to the very last game of the season where play off hopes had already died and lost to a Crewe side with a similar philosophy to theirs.
Inspired by academy graduates, Will Grigg who bagged 20 goals; Jamie Paterson built on an impressive first season by scoring 13 goals; Walsall ended finishing 9th, their highest finish since they were in the 2nd tier (2003-04). Manager Dean Smith wants his young lads to play football, keep it on the ground and entertain the fans.
This season started with less belief. The sales of Will Grigg, Jamie Paterson and Fabian Brandy meant like the previous years it was another re-building process. Craig Westcarr extended his stay for a further year after scoring 5 goals at the tail end of last season. They also signed Romaine Sawyers, Milan Lalkovic and Troy Hewitt. Having beaten Wolves and Swindon away it’s clear to see Dean Smith is working wonders and really getting the best out of his squad. Craig Westcarr is scoring more goals and young players like Ashley Hemmings have been given the chance instead of buying someone to replace the likes of Jamie Paterson. Given all the factors, the club is admirable: stable finances, young British talent and an underrated manager which deserves a position in a higher league.