Walsall’s final day away win at Milton Keynes Dons meant they finished the season on 50 points – the usual ‘magic’ number required for safety from relegation. In reality though, a total of 44 points would have kept the Saddlers up this season.
At the end of August a 2-0 win at Bournemouth left Walsall in tenth place and, five games in, their only defeat was an unlucky 3-2 reverse at promotion hopefuls Sheffield United. It wasn’t looking too bad at all.
However, a disastrous September set the tone for the season. Three straight defeats to Brentford, Notts County and Oldham left Walsall comfortably in the bottom half, and a run of just one win in the sixteen league games between that Bournemouth result and Christmas left the team, unsurprisingly, in the relegation zone.
A gutsy and spirited display at home to Sheffield Wednesday on Boxing Day resulted in a valuable 2-1 win. A day that will live long in the memory of Saddlers’ fans, as on 90 minutes the score was 1-0 to Wednesday, before two injury time goals provided the highlight of the season.
Unfortunately, it was to be a false dawn. Another run of seven league games without a win left Walsall in serious trouble, and looking like, this season, the game was up. In those seven games, the performances weren’t too bad – creditable draws had been achieved away to play-off chasing Brentford and Carlisle – but it wasn’t enough, something needed changing.
It wasn’t until mid-February and the signing of Stoke City’s Florent Cuvelier on loan, that the promising performances started turning into results. The strengthening of the team had come just in time, exactly as it had 12 months earlier. Sam Mantom followed on loan from neighbours West Brom, and forward Emmanuel Ledesma returned from Argentina for his second spell with the club in March.
A further five wins and seven draws from February, March and April saw the Saddlers reach safety in the penultimate game of the season, thanks largely to the three new additions to the squad, and the four teams below them being so poor.
It was a Florent Cuvelier goal that sealed Walsall’s League One status in the 1-1 draw with Huddersfield, very fitting for a teenager who has proven to be a cut above this level. He was a breath of fresh air in the midfield, and it is a shame he will not be seen wearing Walsall colours again. Bigger and better things beckon for him.
Some say achieving safety one game earlier is “progress”, but mere survival in the third tier should not be seen as success for Walsall Football Club. Thankfully this seems to be manager Dean Smith’s view too, but talk is cheap, and it will be interesting to see how well he does in his second attempt at avoiding a relegation battle.
He seems to have divided opinion amongst the supporters. Some still appear to be hailing his ‘achievements’, having pulled off the ‘Great Escape’ last season and ensured survival this season, despite having a ‘tiny budget’. But other managers have achieved far more at Bescot with similar financial constraints; Ray Graydon’s true miracle of 1998/99 in finishing 2nd ahead of Manchester City (where are they now?) being a prime example of that.
One thing is certain, he needs to learn from his mistakes of 12 months ago. Too many players he signed did not perform. It would be a nice change for a Walsall manager to build a squad capable of achieving something by August, and not in February like the past two seasons. If this happens, maybe some stability will occur, and Walsall can look forward to a boring stress-free season of WDLWDL, and not DDLDDL. Finding another Cuvelier could be key.
Being a Walsall supporter is never dull. In my fifteen years supporting the team I can only remember one season (2008-09) when neither promotion nor relegation was pondered at some point. Oh for a season of mid-table mediocrity next year!
Written by Tom Miller, We Are Going Up’s Walsall Blogger
Tom tweets @likelyladtom