Toughest year ever? It’s in the top three for Walsall's chairman

This week marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of Walsall Football Club Limited.

Chairman Leigh Pomlett is in charge during one of the most difficult times in Walsall's history
Chairman Leigh Pomlett is in charge during one of the most difficult times in Walsall's history

Although the club itself began in 1888, the business was created on December 11, 1920. Years of history, on and off the field, have followed but the hardship of the past year may be the worst the company and club have ever experienced.

Difficult decisions have had to be made with redundancies, pay cuts and deferrals being an unfortunate but inevitable result of the world we’re living in.

The man steering the ship, chairman Leigh Pomlett, has taken on one of his biggest challenges this year in keeping the club afloat.

When asked if 2020 has been the toughest year in the company’s history, he said: “It probably has but if you go back to the ITV Digital period, that was very, very damaging.

“And of course the war. How dare I say a global pandemic is a tougher situation than managing the business through the war? I don’t know really which has been a tougher period, but this has certainly been in the top three.

“To have a year without fans fully in the stadium and the conference and events business effectively closed, that’s as tough a scenario as you’d have to manage in the current world.

“When you’re in a situation like this, the only thing that matters as a business is cash. Stefan Gamble (chief executive) and I review the cash at 10am every day, so we know exactly what is coming in and going out.

“As things change we alter the cashflow. We have to make adjustments to it to make sure the club does not run out of cash.

“We’re OK. It’s been an ugly season and I’ve had to make decisions I didn’t want to make, but having made them we’ll get through this season intact. We’ll be fine.”

Although results on the field have not been as promising lately, the battle off the field has been grim. Good news arrived last week, however, as the EFL and Premier League finally agreed a financial package to help clubs.

Walsall will first receive a £250,000 grant, before being handed a further lump sum that is being calculated for each individual club based on their lost gate receipts. That figure is yet to be decided.

On top of that, the Saddlers could move for a ‘monitored grant’ that would require them to abide by restrictions in transfers and wages, but Pomlett has revealed the club will not pursue that extra grant at this stage.

“It is good news, it’s money coming into the club,” he added. “It certainly eases the situation for us in the short-term but long-term it solves nothing. It just gets clubs like ours through this season but we’d have got through this season anyway.

“We will take advantage of the grants but we will not need to go for the monitored grants. I don’t need those restrictions put on the club, we don’t need to go there at this stage.

“This just eases a problem though, it doesn’t solve a problem. The redistribution of wealth around the football world is something that will be done next year, probably by March, and that is far more important. We’ll be watching that very carefully. It cannot be right that an average Premier League left-back is paid the same as this Walsall squad.”

When asked if funds will be available for manager Darrell Clarke in the January transfer window, Pomlett added: “Financially we have to protect the wellbeing of the club.

“I could bring in four or five new players in January and bankrupt the club – what a brilliant piece of management that would be. We have to safeguard the wellbeing of the club this season and for next. Does that mean we can’t bring anyone in this January? No it doesn’t, we could.

“If Darrell thinks he needs to bring in a new player then it’s a conversation we can have, within pretty strict limitations.

“We have a good set of footballers and if we need to enhance it in January then we could do it, but I will not be panicked into it.”

If the financial pressure was not enough to contend with, Walsall and their fans are also having to watch on as supporters of other clubs return to watch their team.

With the borough in Tier 3, Saddlers are not allowed fans back, while Tier 2 can have 2,000 and Tier 1, 4,000.

A review of those tiers is coming on December 16 and for Pomlett the return of fans cannot come soon enough.

He said: “It’s been extremely soulless watching football behind closed doors. I absolutely hate it.

“I love watching football but watching it without the fans has been a soulless experience and I haven’t enjoyed it very much.

“We’ve missed them a lot and I’m looking forward to the day we can welcome them all back in. We’re heading in the right direction and I’m encouraged by that but disappointed we’re not in a lower tier. We have worked very hard to make sure the stadium is ready to welcome fans back safely, I think harder than any club in the league. We just need the green light to do so.”

Although supporters are understandably frustrated with the team and results as it stands, it is fair to say that the majority of them have been pleased with changes made since Pomlett became chairman.

The Walsall Supporters for Change group recently became Walsall Supporters’ Alliance and has fully backed Pomlett.

Now, the chairman insists he does not regret taking over and is ‘adamant’ of achieving his goals – which includes re-uniting the club with the freehold of the Banks’s Stadium.

He added: “People ask me ‘Do you wish you’d not done it?’ No I don’t.

“If anyone was to manage us through this situation, I prefer it to be me.

“I have enjoyed it but I almost feel like I haven’t started yet.

“Last year got truncated, this season has been very difficult with no fans. I almost feel as chairman that I haven’t actually started anything yet.

“I’ve lost sleep over things I never thought I’d have to worry about, it’s been tough.

“I’m still glad I did it, with a longer-term view of the club in mind. I wouldn’t like to relive the last 18 months though.

“When I took over I wanted to improve communication with the fans to get them more on side, it wasn’t great (before).

“I enjoy my relationship with the fans.

“We’ve worked particularly hard on that. That’s a green tick.

“The second thing is I wanted to build a squad and management team to get us back in League One. We haven’t done that yet and I’ve been frustrated with the progress there. But we’re building something that will come through in the end. Half a tick, but not a big green one at this stage.

“And then reuniting this club with its freehold is something, despite all that’s going on, that we’re working on and I’m adamant about. No green tick there but there was never going to be, it’s going to take time . The pandemic has caused us to rethink the planning and how we’re going to do it. Eventually we will make it happen. I want the club to own the freehold, not me and not anyone else.”

Finally, with matters on the field, Pomlett admits his frustration – but he retains belief in the squad and manager.

He said: “We’re just frustrated, but we know the squad is better than the league position and we should be six to nine points better off than we are. I’m tired of other directors and chairmen telling me that when they come here they expect to see the best team in the league and then we don’t perform to that level.

“We have a reputation of, potentially, being an extremely powerful League Two side and there’s been flashes, but consistently we haven’t reached that level.

“There’s a lot of improvement we need to see and I think there’s a lot of improvement for it in the squad. I still believe that I’m right to be optimistic and ambitious about the squad we’ve got. They are a good squad and they get on extremely well as a unit. I am a patient man and will not knee-jerk or react to the situation we’re currently in, because I still believe there’s a lot in there that’s got to come out.

“The moment I stop believing that then we’ll have to have a different conversation, but I’m a long way off that.

“I know the fans get frustrated but I’m one of them, so I get just as frustrated as they do.”

Most Read

Most Read

Top Stories

More from the Express & Star

UK & International News