The Saddlers have already dealt with a hectic January transfer window this year, losing star players Elijah Adebayo and Zak Jules late on, with last-minute loan replacements coming in.
Stability has been a key factor of chairman Leigh Pomlett’s reign and the major changes in the past few weeks have been largely out of his control.
The two players were sold for significant fees that were difficult to turn down in difficult financial times, while the manager they have put so much trust has made a sideways step to Vale. Perhaps ‘sideways step’ is kind, as they sit seven places below Walsall and are in 18th place.
One can only imagine the promises made to turn Clarke’s head, but a move to struggling Vale seems strange, to say the least.
Whatever his reasons are, if it is the best move for him then he leaves with this writer’s best wishes. But since Clarke turned down Leeds United in the Championship to stay with Bristol Rovers, and quoted loyalty for his reason, on the face of it this move seems to fall short of those standards.
Since he stepped into the role Clarke has thrown himself into the Walsall way of life. He moved away from his family down south and has been spending most of his time living with assistant Brian Dutton nearby.
Regardless of what supporters thought of him, he certainly put his heart and soul into the job.
A reluctantness to speak about injuries and other seemingly small details did the 43-year-old no favours in winning over supporters – who also did not enjoy his tactics – but for the most part he had improved individual players throughout his 21 months at the club.
What he does now, however, is leave Walsall in the lurch when they are still pushing for a play-off place. The clash with Cheltenham Town tonight is tough enough without the turmoil of yesterday afternoon.
Then, Walsall have six weeks of back-to-back Saturday-Tuesday games – playing 12 matches in six weeks.
Clarke’s move could well derail the club’s push for promotion at a time when the fixtures are as condensed as ever.
On the other hand, Dutton could prove effective as he moves into the head coach role.
By Clarke’s own admission, Dutton is opposite to him in many ways. He is calm, methodical and tactical. A calming figure could be exactly what the club need to push on for the play-offs, or at least have a stable end to the season and a revamp in the summer.
Mat Sadler, who seems to be a promising up-and-coming coach will have an opportunity to build on his experience in the player-coach role, while Maik Taylor has been a good addition as goalkeeper coach since he joined.
It is diffult, however, not to address fall from grace Walsall have suffered. Just under five years ago, on May 8, 2016,
Jon Whitney’s side won 5-0 at Vale Park and needed Doncaster to beat Burton to secure automatic promotion to the Championship.
Those sides drew 0-0. Walsall were one goal away from the Championship. Now, mid-table in League Two, they have just lost their manager to Vale.
Although there have been many reasons for why the Saddlers find themselves where they are now, it is a worrying sign to see Clarke prefer a move to Vale Park.
The next few weeks and months will be crucial in Walsall’s season, while the upcoming summer will be crucial for their future beyond.
With many players out of contract at the end of the campaign, and the managerial position uncertain, they could find themselves facing another rebuild – one that hopefully yields promotion, if it is not achieved this year.