Walsall: a history
September 5, 2017
Walsall were formed as Walsall Town Swifts in 1888 when Walsall Town and Walsall Swifts were amalgamated. Both clubs had played at The Chuckery and the new club remained at the same ground. The club were first admitted to the Football League in 1892, as founder members of the new Second Division but after finishing 14th out of 16 teams in 1894-95 the club failed to be re-elected to the Football League.
At the start of the following season the club moved to Hilary Street which was later renamed Fellows Park and a year later they changed their name to Walsall F.C. and joined the Midland League. Their stay there was a brief one as within a year they returned to the Second Division, three teams having failed re-election in 1896. The team finished in sixth place in 1898–99, but once again failed re-election two years later, dropping back into the Midland League. A move to the Birmingham League followed in 1903, and in 1910 the club were elected to the Southern League. With the expansion of the Football League after the First World War, Walsall became a founding member of the Third Division North in 1921.
In 1933 they defeated an Arsenal side who would go to win the League Championship that season by two goals to nil in an FA Cup tie at Fellows Park.This cup defeat to a Third Division North side is still regarded as one of the greatest upsets in FA Cup history.
In 1958 following a reorganisation of the Football League Walsall became founder members of the Fourth Division. Under the management of Bill Moore the club achieved successive promotions, scoring 102 goals on their way to winning Division Four in 1959–60 and finishing as Division Three runners-up in 1960–61 to reach the second tier of English football for the first time since the early 1900s. After just two seasons in the Second Division, the club were relegated back to Division Three in 1962–63, and remained there until a further demotion to the Fourth Division, in 1978–79.
The club has always had a rich history of producing players who go on to play at the top level. Allan Clarke went on to win the League Championship under Don Revie at Leeds United after beginning life at Fellows Park. Bert Williams and Phil Parkes both became England goalkeepers in the years after they progressed from their roots in Walsall. David Kelly had a long career at the top level after leaving Walsall in 1988, representing the Republic of Ireland at the very highest level of international football. More recently Michael Ricketts represented England after blossoming at Bolton Wanderers.
The 1980s were a period of considerable activity for Walsall. In 1983–84 they defeated First Division club Arsenal again in the League Cup at Highbury, and advanced to the semi-final, where an estimated 10,000 Saddlers saw a 2–2 draw against Liverpool at Anfield, however a second leg 2–0 defeat in front of 19,591 at Fellows Park saw Walsall lose the tie 4–2 on aggregate. This cup run saw Walsall famously only 90 minutes away from playing in Europe, which was once the name of a Fanzine, unfortunately no longer running. Walsall narrowly missed out on promotion to the Second Division in the same season.
In 1986 plans were announced to move Walsall to Birmingham to groundshare with Birmingham City. The town rallied behind Barrie Blower, who led a campaign to save the club. Walsall were subsequently bought by millionaire entrepreneur and racehorse owner Terry Ramsden and with his money came high-profile signings and the attention of the national media. In 1986–87, under new manager Tommy Coakley, Walsall narrowly missed the play-offs, but made considerable progress in the FA Cup as they defeated Charlton Athletic and Birmingham City and took Watford to two replays in the fifth round.
Walsall earned promotion through the play-offs in 1988 beating Bristol City in a replayed final at Fellows Park. 1988–89 saw the club relegated straight back from Division Two and Ramsden’s business empire collapsed alongside the Tokyo Stock Exchange. Walsall were minutes from being taken over by Japanese administrators and folded, but survived, again through the actions of Barrie Blower and local businessmen.
Further relegation followed at the end of 1989–90 as Walsall were consigned to Division Four.
The club moved to the Bescot Stadium in 1990. At the time it was a state-of-the-art arena, and was only the second new Football League ground constructed since the 1950s. The arrival at Bescot Stadium saw some stability brought back to the club after two successive relegations. Ex-Rovers star Kenny Hibbitt managed the club for four years, setting the groundwork for a golden era for the club that would follow soon after his dismissal in September 1994.
New manager Chris Nicholl led the club to promotion in his first season, building the nucleus of a strong and under-rated team. Two seasons of stability followed before Nicholl resigned in 1997.
Ex-Ajax and Danish international Jan Sorensen took the helm after Nicholl`s departure. Whilst they finished a lowly 19th in Division Two that season, the club reached the 4th Round of the League Cup. In the FA Cup a third round glamour tie at Manchester United was achieved which Walsall lost 5–1. However, despite the club’s cup exploits, a poor finish in the league signalled the end of Sorensen’s time at Walsall after just one season.
In 1998–99, ex-Rovers winger Ray Graydon took over as manager and led the club to a runners-up spot in Division Two, beating Manchester City to automatic promotion by 5 points.
Walsall found life difficult at a higher level, but battled right until the final day of the season, when their fate was finally sealed. A 2–0 defeat at Ipswich coupled with West Brom’s home victory over Charlton meant Walsall returned to the third tier, despite derby wins over local rivals Wolves, Birmingham and West Brom earlier in the campaign.
The club returned to the second-tier of English Football at the first attempt, defeating Reading 3–2, after extra time, in a thrilling play-off final. Despite all the success he had delivered, it soon became clear that Ray Graydon had reached the end of the road at the club. Following an abject performance and 2–0 defeat, against local rivals West Brom, Jeff Bonser dismissed Graydon. His replacement, ex-Wolves manager Colin Lee polarised supporters, but ultimately proved to be a success. The style of football improved and Lee’s signings improved the team dramatically and relegation was avoided.
The following season proved to be one of the most remarkable seasons in the club’s history. Up until Christmas, Walsall were flying. New-signing, the ex-England and Arsenal star, Paul Merson seemed to be repeating some of the magic that had led Portsmouth to promotion the previous season. Following a Boxing Day victory at Cardiff City the club sat just four points off a place in the play-offs. However, 2004 saw a spectacular slump in form. The New Year began with a disappointing FA Cup Third Round defeat away at Millwall, and an embarrassing 6–1 home defeat against fellow-strugglers Coventry City followed. The following weeks saw further costly defeats, and it took until 13 March for the club to win their first league game of 2004. Colin Lee was sacked a month later after a shambolic display at Gillingham.
Lee was replaced on a temporary basis by Paul Merson. Despite the rallying cries of the ex-England international, and the backing of the town, Walsall were ultimately relegated. Despite the club’s relegation and no previous managerial experience, Merson was immediately appointed as full-time manager of the club in May 2004. Although initially a popular choice, a poor season almost ended in successive relegations. However, the inspired loan signing of Julian Joachim spurred the team on to winning all five of their final games of the 2004–05 season and 14th place restoring some faith in his management ability.
Although the 2005–06 season started promisingly, it turned into a disastrous one for Walsall. After increasing supporter pressure following a string of bad results, culminating in a 5–0 defeat at Brentford and Merson’s reign as Walsall manager came to an end on 6 February 2006. Later that month, former Birmingham City captain Kevan Broadhurst was appointed as Paul Merson’s replacement. However, Walsall were relegated after losing 3–1 to Huddersfield Town. Broadhurst was sacked the next day. On 3 May 2006, the club appointed their third permanent manager of the season in former Scunthorpe manager Richard Money.
Richard Money’s reign started with a bang as Walsall lost just once in the first 20 League games in League Two including maximum points from their first seven home games. An impressive start to the season was maintained throughout, and despite a mini-blip in February, Walsall remained in the top three for almost the entire season and were promoted back into League One.
Walsall’s form continued into the new season, as the club performed strongly in 2007–08, including a run of 17 League matches without defeat. However, a January transfer window that culminated in the sales of important first team players caused a drop in form throughout 2008. The club’s play-off challenge was ended after a run of poor results in March leading to Richard Money resigning as manager in April. Jimmy Mullen took over as caretaker manager before being given the job on a permanent basis after the club finished in 12th place.
Walsall endured an inconsistent start to their campaign in 2008–09, with a number of home defeats leading to the sacking of manager Mullen in January 2009. Mullen was replaced by former Walsall player Chris Hutchings who lasted two years before he too was sacked. Head of Youth, and ex-Walsall player Dean Smith was placed in charge.
Walsall started the 2015–16 season well, with Smith being named as League One Manager of the Month for August as the club ended the month at the top of the table. Walsall rejected an approach for Smith from Rotherham United in October, describing him as “fundamental to our future plans”. Smith signed a new 12-month rolling contract on 16 October but six weeks later he left Walsall for Brentford with the “Saddlers” fourth in the table; at the time of his departure he was the fourth longest serving manager in the Football League.