D3D4 Walsall Correspondent Darren Young gives a rather tentative preview of the Saddlers forthcoming season…
I’ve been asked to write a preview of the coming season.
Shall I tell them that for Walsall, it’s way too early to be previewing what lies ahead? They need to come back to me on the second or ideally the third day of August by which time, I will have a far better chance of doing the task justice.
Because this is Walsall. And that means that we have no idea what we are going to get at this stage and any attempt to guess will probably leave egg on face. It often does. And it’s harder now because we’ve had a bit of success and that inevitably brings with it both unrealistic expectations and utter contempt at the thought of mediocrity.
There was a time when mid-table in the third tier was our natural home. So much so that we used to deliberately manufacture a good or bad run at the end of the season to get as close to twelfth place as possible. It was then, once the previous manager, Dean Smith, got his feet under the table that we became so much harder to predict.
For example, we expected another half way finish in 2012, then Will Grigg started the after-burners and we almost got to the play offs despite being the bookies favourites to go down. So naturally we expected better the following year only to fade away. The next season we tried a relegation scrap when we had high hopes in pre-season (but also got to Wembley for the first time ever, which made us feel we should be back every year) and then after we, and everyone else, had written us off in 2015/6, we missed promotion by a point and lost in the play offs. Which of course made us one of the favourites last year, so we took six paces – and lots of league places – back instead. And they think I can preview the new season after that?
The biggest problem is personnel. Again we were literally spoiled by that man Smith. He’d kept a fairly settled and balanced squad for a few years, adding to it here and there when needed, but most of that lot left after the play- off heartache and current boss, Jon Whitney is now rebuilding for the second time in two seasons.
Or should I say partly rebuilding?
As of today, with three weeks till the big kick off at big spending Bury, we have a new back five and er, that’s about it. We’ve raided the Scottish Championship and EFL League 2 for a goalie and new set of young, tall defenders. As we can’t defend corners for toffee, that’s no bad thing. But further forward? Nothing. We have some of what we had last season, which wasn’t great to begin with, plus a few unproven kids and the promise of more to come.
But while Bury keep signing players, we don’t despite the promises and that makes season previews almost impossible. Every Walsall supporter can see (and at least one says it way too often) that we need at least one striker. Proven. Reliable. A line leader. We supposedly have cash for one too, having sold our previous twenty goal a season strikers, Grigg and Tom Bradshaw for good money along with exciting full back, Rico Henry, for even more.
But just like we struggled to replace Grigg, so we’ve struggled to replace Bradshaw too and it leaves us looking hard to see where the goals are going to come from. So while there is undoubted quality in the squad, it looks thin on the ground and too reliant on aging or injury prone midfielders or us being lucky and having one or more of the youngsters really kick on for us to be amongst the challengers.
Which leaves us with the most up in the air new season preview ever.
Start on 5 August with what we have now and I think I’ll join most other fans in being happy if we can stay out of the bottom four. And there’s lots to be said for doing that as many a club has gone close to getting out of League 1 at the right end and managed to do it at the wrong end not long afterwards.
Fans of a certain age will be more accepting that maintaining our current status isn’t the end of the world. Of course, younger, more impatient fans will expect far more; as they do at every club.
But as we know, there are still three weeks to go and who knows what might happen in that time. Walsall rarely do things early or easily.
If we bring in a striker and get lucky, mid-table comfort beckons. If we get luckier and unearth a new Bradshaw or, heaven forbid, buy one, then – with another two or three additions – we might be capable of challenging for a top six place.
And if Troy Deeney gets sold for thirty million quid (we have a very large sell on percentage attached to any deal) then that’s a whole new ball game.
But even if that did happen, we’re as likely to spend it on the training ground, bring in a couple of free transfers and be happy with mid-table again.
As I said, this is Walsall.
words Darren Young