D3D4 Walsall Correspondent Darren Young explains how he is comfortable with his sides continued participation in League One…
Is It Wrong To Enjoy The Fellowship Of League One?
This week, and not for the first time, I was accused of being a Happy Clapper; in other words, Walsall FC fan speak for being happy with mediocrity and content to put up with another potential season of c**p from my club because ‘it’s always been c**p’.
What had I said? Well, only that I wasn’t surprised that we had so far failed to bring in a new striker or two because nearly every season is like that.
Apparently, this is typical of a so-called Happy Clapper. It means I lack ambition too, ambition, I presume, to get out of the god-forsaken league we are in.
It made me wonder. Is it a crime to enjoy League One?
The more I thought about it, the more I realised that I actually quite like the division. I ought to by now, as Walsall have spent the majority of their history in one re-incarnation of it or another. But it’s not just familiarity; there is a sense of belonging and dare I say, comfort from it too.
In a footballing world that has well and truly gone crazy, League One provides a sense of balance. It has a familiar ring to it and you know where you are. It doesn’t try to be something it’s not and it’s where sensibly run (and some not so sensibly run) clubs with a fan base of approximately four to six thousand supporters can enjoy football without the pressures of finding themselves in danger of going out of the EFL one way or another. There are a few of us in there who share that fellowship.
Think about it.
The Premier League is in a world of its own. So far removed from reality and the ‘working man’s game’ that you have to go back to a land without Sky to remotely have a chance of finding it. It’s become a plaything for the rich and with the right (aka rich) owner and some shrewd investment, it’s a place where the likes of Bournemouth can easily financially outmuscle a Benfica, Bordeaux or Borussia Monchengladbach.
Then there is the Championship, also known as the place where Premier League clubs of yesteryear go to die. Unless they can parachute themselves back up very quickly of course. It’s a place that has stadia that some PL clubs would die for, not to mention fan bases and history, and a great place to grab a quick dose of nostalgia every Saturday and Tuesday.
Skip a division and we have League Two, or basically what I would call The Conference. The Conference that was, sorry National League has now become League Two (or Division 4 in old money). The movers and shakers with the money, and vegan menus, have risen up and taken over while the more traditional names are fighting to find a way back.
BTW, I’m being deliberately flippant here just in case anyone’s thinking of getting offended.
Yet somehow, League One is relatively unaffected by all this mayhem. It’s the Middle Earth of the football pyramid if you like.
Sure you get the odd fallen or sleeping giant pass through on the way down (or up) but they don’t tend to hang around for that long. Except for maybe Sheffield United. League One has a certain symmetry to it that comes from being unable to get promoted to a new unchartered world and being unable to fall out of the EFL altogether.
But that’s not the only reason I like it.
You see, most of my favourite times as a Walsall supporter have taken place here. I know that will see me accused of being to accepting of second (or is it third?) best.
But that’s because at my club, you have to be staunchly rooted in one camp or another. Either you issue a declaration of war against the owner or you are a Happy Clapper.
There is no in-between. There’s no No Man’s Land at Walsall.
Which doesn’t sit too well with me because I feel like No Man’s Land is exactly where I am. There are some things I really like about the way the club is run, and other things I despair at. And why can’t do both?
For instance, I’m really pleased our wage bill is roughly half of our income.
I’m glad we don’t try and buy our way out of the division and end up buying our way into administration instead like some clubs seem intent on doing. We are good at holding up clubs as examples of mismanagement and then wishing we were more like them, but for every ‘small’ club that hits the big time there are plenty more that go the other way.
I’m delighted we invest and develop the youth players in our system, that we try to make extra money from non-football activities and that we, generally, give managers time to build a squad; and that we look at Scotland and League Two for unpolished gems.
But I really dislike the fact that we never seem to reinvest transfer fees received properly.
I hate that we never know where all the money keeps going; that we have to pay our owner to play at ‘our’ ground (although that explains where some of the money goes) and that we leave it until the last minute every season to realise that we are woefully short of strikers.
I also find it frustrating that the things that annoy me about WFC, we continue to do year in and year out; as if we never learn from the previous failings. But we also repeat the good things too and a sense of déjà vu can easily take over. At Walsall, it can feel less like watching them for ten consecutive seasons and more like watching the same one season ten times in a row.
But not quite. Every now and again there is a stand out campaign; where the footballing Gods, new signings and luck align to give us that bit of hope. It doesn’t happen that often but it does happen. I just don’t expect it every season because I know the drill by now.
It’s why I’m not too uncomfortable sitting on the fence, knowing that maybe this season – maybe next- a diamond will emerge from the youth squad or a free transfer will resurrect their reputation and we’ll have another great year.
Maybe one of these times we’ll get promoted. Recent history would say it happens on average every seven and a half years and we are definitely due one as this is our eleventh season at this level since winning League Two in 2008.
Two years ago, Burton pipped us to promotion by a single point. They’ve done brilliantly since and all credit to them. It wouldn’t be natural if I weren’t a bit envious of them going to St James’s or Villa Park. But as I said, some of my favourite times as a Walsall fan have been during our time in Middle Earth.
It’s certainly where we have played our best football on a consistent basis. Even in the apparent gloom of last season, we beat eventual Champions Sheffield United three times, won thirteen points from eighteen against the promoted teams and won six successive home games at one stage.
My early years as a fan included some incredible games; full of goals, entertainment and tension. Three of them culminated in promotion, twice via the play offs, the other when we beat a little known team called Manchester City to an automatic spot.
It’s not to say I didn’t enjoy our brief sojourns into the higher tier when it happened, but they were often bitter sweet as we punched above our weight but not quite enough. There were memorable highs (beating Wolves, West Brom – twice -and Blues by five to nil) but those seasons often ended in Mount Doom and despair and in one particular season, a record number of consecutive defeats.
So, whilst wishing they’d show a little more nous in the transfer window and maybe be a little more open with fans about what’s going on, I’m also happy that they seem to be on a sound financial footing, have people who care about the club working in senior positions and I’ll keep my fingers crossed that things work out on the pitch in the meantime.
If that makes me a Happy Clapper, I’ll have to accept it. At least there is something to clap. And if that’s in League One, I’m not too worried about that either.