Being a Walsall fan you expect every summer to be the same. The club’s reluctance to offer players more than one-year contracts leaves us with a hefty re-building job every summer. What it does guarantee, however, is that we are unlikely to see high-earners we no longer want with several years left on their contract. This is a tactic that keeps Walsall in relative financial stability.
This summer has been more of the same for Saddlers fans. Only four players were under contract at the end of the season, leaving manager Dean Smith with a very busy summer ahead.
The 2011/12 season will be an important one for the club, and for the manager. Smith will be in charge for his first full season, after an incredible escape from relegation last season. Taking over from the hopeless Chris Hutchings in January, with the club bottom of the league and a full nine points adrift at one stage, Smith managed to claw the club to safety from what seemed like an impossible position.
Dubbed the ‘Ginger Mourinho’ he has gained the respect of the fans, but all will be forgotten if we have a bad start to the season. In the press, bookies and fans of other League One sides’ perspective, Walsall will be one of the favourites for relegation this season. But another battle at the bottom will be seen as unacceptable by the Walsall faithful. After all, we are one of only seven current League One sides to have played at a higher level in the last ten years.
Smith’s squad building to date has been relatively low-key. On top of the four players already signed up for 2011/12, he persuaded five more to extend their deals just weeks after we had beaten the drop at Southampton. The most notable of these, captain Andy Butler, signed a new two-year deal making him currently the one and only player to be contracted to the club beyond the summer of 2012.
The tenth senior player Smith convinced to re-sign was arguably the most important – goalkeeper Jimmy Walker – already a legend among Walsall fans, he will be aiming to break Colin Harrison’s club appearance record in 2011/12.
Ten senior players on the books (and four first-year professionals) at the beginning of June is an unprecedented number for Walsall in recent seasons. Smith had at least slowed our annual merry-go-round. By setting a deadline for new deals to be signed, and by sticking to it, Smith showed he only wants players who are 100% committed to the Walsall cause. This strong will gave him the opportunity to pursue other players as soon as possible, giving us much more time to re-build the squad.
Walker was the final player from last year to sign a new deal, so with six players released, and three not opting to sign (or not signing within the deadline set by Smith); there were still nine players to replace.
Here begins the who’s who of Walsall new boys in 2011.
The first summer signing came in the shape of a player appropriately named to be a Walsall player – Mat Sadler. “Sadler signs for Saddlers” – a journalist’s dream! It’s a shame his name is not spelled quite right. A missing D in his surname is backed up with a missing T in his first name. A phobia of double leters sems posible (intentional [sic] there). Hopefully he won’t go missing in any matches like our previous left-backs, Aaron Lescott and Ryan McGivern, did last season
Second to sign was former Carlisle winger, Kevan Hurst. With a decent record for Scunthorpe at this level, he is a player that comes with some pedigree, but has found himself floundering recently.
Possibly the most questionable of Dean Smith’s signings was his third. Ryan Jarvis spent last season as far-from-first choice at Leyton Orient, scoring only two league goals in a play-off chasing side. A promising youngster at Norwich City, he has failed to fulfil his potential, but Smith knows him well from his time at Orient, and believes he can get the best out of him. If not, we can always try to swap him for the other Jarvis down the road playing in orange and black.
Fourth through the now well-used door, was Frenchman Claude Gnakpa from Luton Town. A defender turned winger, he scored 15 goals in the Blue Square Premier last season. Half of that amount would do nicely for us. Gnakpa will surely be a nightmare to League One announcers across the country. Hopefully, he will be a nightmare to League One defenders too.
In at number five, a classic Walsall signing. Birmingham-born Adam Chambers was looking to re-locate back ‘home’ – I’ve lost count of the number of players that have joined the club due to its location. Pre-season friendly performances suggest Chambers may be an example of this working in our favour. Only time will tell.
Our final three signings to date – Lee Beevers, David Grof, and Anton Peterlin – all add to the squad, but none are really getting Saddlers fans on the edge of their seats. Grof’s name being similar to that of ex-Nirvana drummer and current Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl being the only remotely interesting thing about them.
But it’s times like these, after another erase/replace until the summer’s end, you realise one of these players could be my hero next year – stranger things have happened. (All apologies for the musical references in that sentence. Nevermind.)
So, what are my hopes for the season?
To be really cliché, the first aim is getting to 50 points as soon as possible, then 70 points if possible, and then 90 points if possible. To quote a well-known meerkat: Simples.
Oh, and a decent cup run would be nice.
Written by Tom Miller, We Are Going Up’s Walsall Blogger
Tom tweets at @likelyladtom