It was another summer of uncertainty for Walsall, with no less than fourteen players leaving the club.
In truth, however, a complete clear-out was necessary in order to eliminate the losing mentality that has hampered the club for the past two seasons. Finishes of 20th and 19th saw relegation escaped by the narrowest of margins in 2011 and 2012.
Although the clear-out was necessary, more uncertainty followed with the announcements of Dean Smith’s signings for the new season. A plethora of Hereford ‘rejects’ arrived, filling further doubt into the mind’s of Saddlers fans. Every signing was one which did not appear to, on paper, be an improvement on what had been released in the summer.
Ashley Hemmings arrived from Wolves after a loan spell with Plymouth in League Two. Dean Holden was snapped up after being released by relegated Rochdale. Then came the arrival of the players from Hereford – Nicky Featherstone, James Baxendale and Ben Purkiss all signed up having failed to keep Hereford in the football league. These signings along with Paul Downing, Febian Brandy and Connor Taylor shaped the squad for the new season.
An unexpected return for Florent Cuvelier on loan from Stoke proved to be the highlight of the new arrivals. The Belgian U20 captain had been inspirational in last season’s run-in, and his services were secured until January.
What was the one notable fact about all but one of Walsall’s summer signings? They were all young, and all had very limited football league experience. Dean Holden was the exception to the rule, but even his addition looked decidedly dodgy.
Pre-season was fairly uneventful as usual for Walsall. The results proved nothing: there was a victory over Kidderminster, a drab draw with Telford and the annual friendly defeats to Wolves and West Brom. One bright point was that the team had finally seemed to have ditched the hideous hoof-ball tactics that Saddlers fans have been subjected to for the last three seasons.
So far this has transferred well into the league. Despite an opening day defeat to recently-relegated Doncaster, a good run of form against the division’s most fancied sides has left Walsall in seventh place after eight games.
A highly unexpected start has given many supporters reason to feel positive for the first time in years, and even making comparisons to the incredible season the club had in 1998/99. Similar to this season, the club had started the season in 1998 with a whole new unfancied squad and as relegation favourites, but a fantastic team spirit and winning mentality led the team to second place and automatic promotion ahead of Manchester City.
However, it is slightly too early to be using the ‘P’ word, and in reality, 50 points is still the main target.
While victories against the ‘bigger’ sides of Notts County, MK Dons, Preston and Portsmouth may look promising from the outside, the true test of Dean Smith’s new young guns will be in the dull Tuesday night fixtures against the ‘smaller’ sides, where in the last two seasons Walsall have struggled. Next Tuesday’s home tie with Leyton Orient, therefore, may be a serious indicator to how well the Saddlers can do this season.
Alan Hansen once famously said “you can’t win anything with kids”, but there is a refreshing enthusiasm found in the young players signed by the club in the summer. Relying on a front six with an average age of 21 looked like a terrifyingly naive gamble by Dean Smith in pre-season, but so far it has proved to be a highly successful leap of faith.
Written by Tom Miller, We Are Going Up’s Walsall Blogger
Tom tweets @likelyladtom