Comment: Jeff Bonser saved Walsall and boosted his savings
They say in football the quickest way to become a millionaire is to start as a billionaire.
But that was never true for Jeff Bonser, who has made an awful lot of money from the club he supports. There can be no denying Bonser saved the Saddlers when he completed his takeover in 1991. Walsall were minutes away from entering receivership. His actions kept professional football in the town.
But for supporters, his time in power has been steeped in controversy and frustration for one key reason. Bonser owned Walsall Football Club and the freehold of the Banks’s Stadium – as separate entities.
It meant the club paid rent to play at the ground – with that money going into a pension pot from which Jeff and his brother Robert were beneficiaries.
But while Bonser and his family have continued to profit, the same can’t be said for Walsall on the field.
Early-on, the Bonser era started brightly. They won promotion from Division Three in 1995.
Then in 1999, they achieved the unthinkable by topping Man City to earn a place in what is now the Championship. Relegation may have followed. But they won promotion again in 2001.
Yet from the moment they dropped out the second tier in 2004, Championship football has felt a long way away.
Football has changed dramatically since then, with a wealth of cash having flooded into the game.
Bonser and Walsall’s stance has barely changed however, with the club becoming one of the poorest payers in the Football League.
Fans have had to watch as year-in, year-out, little investment has been made into the team. The rent payment – into Jeff’s pension pot however – has always been made. A wealthy man, supporters longed for the former owner to loosen the purse-strings in a bid to give a succession of managers a greater chance of being successful. But that “gift” has never been forthcoming.
And that’s why, for many people, last season’s relegation was inevitable.
The reality is, in today’s modern football world, you need an owner who will invest everything that can into the team in order to give it a shot at being successful. Bonser hasn’t done that for a long time. It’s not clear he ever has. And for all the highs, there have been some horrible lows.
Bonser was at the helm when Walsall made their first ever appearance at Wembley in 2015. But he was also in charge when a host of fans were banned from the stadium for taking in a banner with the words ‘Pension Fund FC’ embedded onto a Cypriot flag.
The reality is supporters have been desperate to see him move on.
To those close to him describe him as a father-figure and gentleman. There is no doubt he is a passionate Walsall fan and as an owner he has been incredibly hands-on. Even over the last few years he has been at the stadium or the training ground most days.
But his supporters always point to the same thing.
Under Bonser, Walsall have always made a profit. And there has never been any risk of the club going bust. The likes of Bolton, Bury, Notts County and Leyton Orient are often used as examples of how things could be worse.
For me, though, you don’t celebrate not becoming a shambles.
Walsall have needed more ambition from the top for a long time.
So while Bonser has been the most successful owner in the club’s history, you can’t help but feel more excited now he is no longer at the helm.