Saddlers Social: Walsall fans review the 2020/21 season

With the 2020/21 season now at an end, the Saddlers Social columnists reflect on a campaign that saw Walsall finish 19th in League Two.

Saddlers Social
Saddlers Social

Ian Newbold

The end of a drab and miserable season. Not a lot went right and perhaps in years to come we’ll be glad this was the one played behind closed doors.

What has gone right is the club recognising we needed help at the highest level with the footballing decisions. The introduction of a Football Director may not yield immediate results, but I for one feel it can only be of long-term benefit for the club.

The club showing its teeth with the tiny retained list is also good. Time to draw a line under a team that finished 19th in League Two. Thanks, but no thanks class of 2021.

More ruthlessness is called for, the first team needs to be an environment solely focused on winning football matches. The club’s overall wholesome ethos is fantastic, but I think when it comes to getting out of this dreadful League Two we’ll need to become more mean, unrelenting and focused on winning above all else.

I expect some practical and unspectacular signings, and that’s probably what we need. The ilk of Michael Dobson, Craig Pead or Hector Sam perhaps. And they’ll probably all be led by a grumpy pragmatic manager, what’s Dicky Dosh up to these days?

Rob Harvey

What a disappointment that season ended up being for the once ‘Super Saddlers’. The disappointment of what unfolded over the nine months of the season can be likened to when you were a child and the ice cream van came around. You wanted a 99’ with a flake, and end up with a mini-milk instead.

Approaching the season the fans were full of renewed optimism after the end to the previous season where we looked capable of going toe to toe with the best that League Two had to offer. Transfer business was, on the whole, fairly well received, and our manager was saying all of the right things to the media and the fans about our ambitions. What could possibly have gone wrong?

With eight League Two fixtures played we were still to taste defeat, and then Cambridge came up and put an end to that, with a defensive error from us to help them on their way (and there were plenty more of those to come!). At this point, we seemed to be doing OK, possibly drawing too many games but we still had plenty to come where we could sort those out into wins.

Saturday November 14 will go down as the first really low point of the season. The inpotent Southend United rock up to ‘Fortress Bescot’ having not kept a clean sheet for 42 league games (practically a whole season!) and without a league win all season. Being masters of our own downfall we miss a late penalty (again, something else we were pretty good at doing as it turns out) and Southend grab a winner. This was the first time that I started to question whether we really were good enough and if Darrell Clarke was really giving everything he had for us.

Following that horror show our next eight league games provided us with four winless games in a row followed by four wins in a row against some decent teams such as Bolton Wanderers and Tranmere. We even beat Port Vale 4-3 after Darrell Clarke made four substitutions at half-time. Cracks well and truly papered over at this point.

Five more winless games followed for us heading deep into January, only for us to get another win against Port Vale, away this time and by the scoreline 3-1. This was the last time in the season that any logical Walsall fan would have thought we could trouble the play-offs.

Now, January had always been a bit of a sore point with Saddlers fans, ever since Scott Dann and Danny Fox left at the end of a transfer window a good few years back now. This time Elijah Adebayo was in form, had six months left on his contract and was attracting interest from North of the Border in the form of Hearts. This led to a massive catastrophe of errors, starting with Darrell Clarke calling Hearts out for discussing Adebayo whilst he was under contract when in actual terms they operate under different rules, which the Hearts manager was only too happy to show Mr Clarke up about. Now, we were all pretty certain Adebayo was going to leave, and we had just over a week to sort out a replacement. No problem.

Big problem.

As it happened, in typical Walsall Football Club fashion, we sign a replacement striker as close to the deadline as possible, after selling Adebayo to the football hotbed of Luton pretty much at the same time. Derick Osei-Yaw, never scored a league goal, only given to us after a last minute plea from Darrell Clarke to his ‘mate’ Karl Robinson, ended up being more like ‘Eeyore’. Absolute Donkey.

From this point forward there didn’t appear to be much more to add. This was for all intents and purposes the end of our season. However, our badge-laden manager had had enough and decided that Burslem was more suited to him. Not a biggie, nobody really cared too much as most of us wanted him gone. Criminally we appointed Sir Brian Dutton as Head Coach until the end of the season and what a ****-show that ended up being. From not really having much to play for we found ourselves staring down the barrel of a bullet that could have very realistically sent us packing to Bromley (a) in the National League. Luckily we just about managed to keep our heads above the bear pit and struggled to end the season just eight points away from a non-league nightmare.

It angers me, and probably many more Walsall fans, how this past season has gone and I’d suggest the club has got off lightly due to no fans being allowed in. Next season, anything similar will not be tolerated. There’s so much more to dissect such as loaning players from Birmingham and never playing them, and having to rebuild pretty much the whole squad yet again just two years on from the last time, but it is just anger inducing so I’ll leave it.

As I write this we have no Head Coach, but we do have a recently appointed Director of Football in place. Safe to say, he won’t have a honeymoon period and needs to get the next Head Coach appointment bang on. Anything less and there will be calls for his head on top of everyone else.

It’s been said many times over the past 18-24 months, but I do truly believe that now is the biggest time in the history of Walsall FC for longer than a lot of the fan base have been alive. Next season will define us and will ultimately show us what our mid-to-long term future holds for us.

Fingers crossed that everything falls into place.

Chris Saunders

It seems an age ago since the season started with some optimism. After a decent run towards the early end of last season and a fairly settled squad things were looking good. Overall though we never got going and other than a brief run in December it was drawing that had kept us mid table with one eye looking upwards in hope.

Losing our star striker in January and having Holden missing for a large chunk of the season really didn’t help matters and then we had Clarke leave and Dutton take over. I don’t really think that made much difference to our run in as I think a downward trend was already likely to happen. Now that it’s off we must take the small positives like the break through of some youth and a bit more structure behind the scenes and start to look forward, quickly.

The lack of a manager is obviously a situation that needs addressing as soon as possible and whilst the released/retained list didn’t spring too many surprises it does show the amount of work required to assemble a competitive squad for next season. Whilst I don’t think any individuals were to blame for our predicament, I do believe the team had gone stale and players moving on is best for everyone. What we need to make sure we do is give ourselves a quality spine of the team and fill around them with potential and consistency. If we can do that and we get the coaching team right we could have a good season. Get it wrong and I really don’t want to think of the struggle we could have on our hands.

Stuart Cox

At last that season is over. For many reasons the worst I can remember as a Walsall fan.

I’m actually glad that we weren’t allowed to attend this season and I wasn’t subjected to watching some of that terrible football in person. I think if we had been allowed in, the atmosphere would have ended up very toxic indeed, which may have forced Leigh Pomlett’s arm before the end of the season with regards to Dutton’s position.

I was hoping for a large clear out at the end of the season which has happened thankfully. The only one I am disappointed about is Clarke as he seemed to steady the ship somewhat on his return to the side.

The others all needed to go really, both for the club and for themselves to make a fresh start. The biggest disappointment for me has to be Gordon. We were worried back in the Autumn that he would be sold in January, yet after his return from injury he has been a shadow of the player that we saw. Maybe he can kickstart his career again somewhere else (Vale?!) but it was the right decision to let him go. If the media is to be believed, he didn’t want to stay anyway.

We seem to have been saying the same thing for the past few years now, but this summer is massive for Walsall Football Club. First decision obviously is to get the right manager in. I don’t have a preference really, but it needs to someone who can get the best out of the players that we end up buying. Sounds simple doesn’t it?!

We’ve seen in the past that it can be done without having the best budget and there have been examples in League Two this year where pots of money hasn’t been needed to generate success and where cash has not been able to buy success (let’s all laugh at Salford...).

We need a manager who knows the limitations of the players and plays to their strengths, one who doesn’t change the system every five minutes and one who knows what it takes to get out of this division. I’m always a ‘cup half full’ person when it comes to Walsall, stupidly maybe, but I’m sure we can get the good time back at the Banks’s.

Roberto Petrucco

I think we can all agree one thing – we’re glad this season is over. 19th in League Two is not good enough, and the club has to see it as rock bottom, which I think it has.

For me, Kinsella was a deserving Player of the Year winner, and would make the ideal captain. He may not be the shouty, vocal captain, but he is someone who embodies what Walsall players should be. Too many times this season we didn’t see the commitment and desire that we saw in Kins.

The released list was long, but not surprising. Clarke going was a shame, but as one of our highest earners, it makes sense from a financial point of view. We are now strikerless, but as the two let go only scored nine, this is not a concern.

All areas of the pitch need work, but surely it cannot get more drab than what we have had to endure this season... can it?

Nick Etheridge

Finally! A season that I’m sure we all want to forget is over and we can put football to bed for a few weeks (bar the Euro’s of course!)

In a season that promised so much early on, the longer it went by, the more of an inconvenience it seemed. Covid has had a big part to play in the enjoyment levels of the game, but it’s literally seemed like a chore to watch at times. Hopefully we can all be back at the Bescot for the season opener in August.

Much will have changed when we returned, and I’m not just talking about green stickers on seats! With a new manager at the helm and pretty much a new squad to get behind, us supporters will be as keen as ever to get back, providing that the budget given to Fullarton is used correctly. This for me was the biggest reason why we struggled so much early on in the season with Clarke and partially why Dutton wasn’t able to stem the downward slide.

Clarke seemed to put all of his eggs in one basket by signing Rory Holden. At the time it was a brilliant bit of business and may well see us fair better next season. Once he got that injury though, it was clear that the “top ten budget” hadn’t been spread evenly with creativity and width both hugely lacking. There’s no doubt that if Holden had been fit then we would have finished much higher up in the table but the fact that we then lost our top scorer and failed to replace either of them adequately meant the writing was on the wall.

In my opinion, Clarke jumped ship as he could see the direction we were going, and Dutton was left with a bucket to try and prevent us from sinking. Thankfully he managed to salvage the shipwreck but some of his decisions along the way meant that there was no way back for him

Hopefully next season will see us make a decent fist of it, even if a play-off push is unlikely. We can all hope though. Have a good summer all.

James Kenealey

Another season passes into history, a season that can most flatteringly be described as ‘almost a lot worse’. There will be little or nothing to look back fondly on from 2020/21, but before we permanently delete the last 12 months from our collective memories, there’s just enough time for my official Walsall FC End of Season Awards.

Highlight of the season

Winner: Taking six points from Port Vale

Slim pickings for this award, but doing the double over local rivals is always fun.

Lowlight of the season

Winner: Barrow (H)

In a season full of them, this capped it off for me. I just can’t.

Player of the Season

Winner: Elijah Adebayo

It seems ridiculous to award this to a player who left in January but look at what happened to our attacking play when he left. Glad to see he’s doing it at a higher level.

Young Player of the Season

Winner: Sam Perry

Keep on this trajectory and you’ll go far. Well done.

The Award for Unfulfilled Potential

Winner: Wes McDonald

What happened, Wes? We were so full of hope when you signed that 18 month deal. More stepovers than a heavily caffeinated Chris Marsh but ultimately the first season promise was never quite delivered upon in 2020/21, so you ultimately move on with my blessing. I hope it works out for you, and we’ll always have that goal against Crawley.

Sports Personality of the Year Award

Winner: Each and every supporter

It’s been an incredibly challenging time. The old saying is ‘never let the football ruin a day out at the football’. Without being able to go to the games, the experience of following Walsall (and indeed any other football club) has been stripped back to its bare elements - just the actual football itself. Without being able to see your mates, share the gallows humour and the frustration and the little victories, we’ve been forced to focus on the performances, and they’ve been lacking at best. For the first time ever, I had to experience football like millions of Sky TV Premier League fans do. It was rubbish.

It’s been the worst season in our history, so much on and off the pitch is lacking and yet unfailingly people stick with it. So to each and every Walsall fan out there, especially anyone who tuned into Barrow at home, Southend at home or any of the other myriad disasters this season – well done.

Thanks for reading and let’s hope there’s some promise in what is a massive summer.

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