As the rest of West Midlands football spectacularly implodes, Walsall continue to quietly go about their business.
As the rest of West Midlands football spectacularly implodes, Walsall quietly go about their business.
The often-forgotten Saddlers – they are the ones you can see from the M6 – find it hard to make noise surrounded by their illustrious neighbours.
But while West Brom deal, impressively, with the Peter Odemwingie fallout, Villa lurch from crisis to crisis, Wolves plummet in the Championship and Blues remain on the brink Walsall stand firm.
Everything is relative; they are in League One and the Saddlers do not expect the same spotlight as the others. But who would have thought they would be arguably the biggest success story this season?
It is a shame they will not get the wide-ranging plaudits they deserve – the invisible well-wishers will continue to play dumb and column inches remain unused.
But seven wins from nine games – after Saturday’s 3-1 comeback win over Oldham – leaves them four points from the play-offs and just six from the 50 mark. For the last two years it has taken them the entire season to reach that target.
Dean Smith quipped that the biggest home attendance of the season was down to the ‘Ned’ factor after David Kelly returned as his assistant in midweek.
But points mean prizes and the Saddlers are rightly being rewarded for their style and unwavering courage in sticking to the plan.
Fans are returning, confidence is rife – and it is all done on a pittance.
Odemwingie’s fines alone would cover a decent signing for the Saddlers, which is another nod to Smith’s abilities.
He never complains and never crows. But there is still a sense of satisfaction from the manager after having a winless run “rammed down his throat” as he put it a couple of weeks ago, although there will be no “I told you so”.
He will even spare a thought for Paul Dickov, who quit as Oldham boss after the defeat.
And, with January proving troublesome for the West Midlands’ ‘big’ four, it was a very fine month for the Saddlers. Four wins from five games laid the platform for survival – but it was off the pitch where they really shone.
New deals for Andy Taylor, Mal Benning and James Baxendale and the permanent signings of Sam Mantom and Craig Westcarr stated their intent; the return of Kelly maintained the optimism and, while there was no serious interest, they kept their stars.
Because, such is Jamie Paterson’s development, Smith will be pleased the window is now shut. The nine-goal winger has been pinned as a star since he and George Bowerman created havoc for the youth team.
And now, still only 21, that promise and potential are beginning to be fulfilled. A match-winning performance and a sublime brace underlined his undoubted talent.
He terrorised a Latics defence who were busy dealing with Luis Suarez while knocking Liverpool out of the FA Cup in their previous game.
They couldn’t cope with Paterson’s marauding runs and the forward could have claimed a hat-trick with more composure. That is being picky as, over the Saddlers’ fine run, the winger has maintained a previously missing consistency.
Five goals in 10 games – along with the rest of the improving squad – has propelled the Saddlers up the table and on Saturday they proved last weekend’s 2-0 defeat at Colchester was just a blip.
Taylor and Febian Brandy were recalled while Oldham handed debuts to Lee Barnard and ex-Wolves striker Chris Iwelumo, on loan from Watford.
And the strike pair unsettled the Saddlers as the hosts failed to find their stride.
Oldham had already seen two penalty shouts ignored before Barnard’s powerful header had them in front on 19 minutes.
It was deserved but, slowly, the Saddlers wrestled back control. Will Grigg headed straight at Dean Bouzanis before Baxendale broke Oldham’s well-drilled resistance by sliding a shot under the keeper five minutes before the break.
It changed the game and the Saddlers probed with Grigg shooting at Bouzanis after Paterson’s delicious through ball while Brandy failed to get a decent connection on his shot.
Jonathan Grounds fired over for Oldham but, contained, the visitors wilted to hand Paterson centre stage.
First he buried a low 20-yard effort into the corner 16 minutes from the end before capping the comeback with a beautiful second in stoppage time. He had already been denied by Bouzanis but this time made a fool of Cliff Byrne by latching onto Adam Chambers’ pass, lifting the ball over the static defender’s head 25 yards out and running clear to seal the win.
It was Gascoigne-esque and moved Walsall to ninth in League One – just 12 places below Wolves in football’s pyramid.
By Nick Mashiter